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Shawn Vestal: In a recession, honesty is at an all-time low

So, to recap: The country sinks into a massive recession, caused by a fraudulent, out-of-control, unwatched-over financial institutions and free-market wheeler-dealers.

The rest of us suffer. Jobs vanish, pay cuts and furloughs reign, home values tank, foreclosures rise. Banks – still thriving, thanks to the bailout and unwavering access to cheap cash from the government – botch the federal programs intended to help people stay in their home or borrow for a business.

Faced with this, a ridiculous number of people have figured out who to punish and how: Take away collective bargaining rights from unions. Put the squeeze on minimum-wage workers. Make unemployment benefits “less attractive,” in the words of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

Yeah, that’s the problem. All that attractive unemployment.

We’re through the looking glass here, Alice. The fiscal recession has become the reality recession. The honesty recession.

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation is organizing a rally Saturday in Olympia to support Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – who looked at his state’s financial problems and identified the villain: collective bargaining.

The Washington Federation of State Employees is planning a counter-rally in Olympia, and they’ve already been out in support of Wisconsin labor. I hope the WFSE beats one drum very, very loudly: Their membership has already agreed to take a pay cut and pay a bigger share of their health care in the upcoming budget.

Remember that, the next time the honesty recession kicks in.

In the honesty recession, what actually happens doesn’t have to bear any relationship whatsoever to what you say. If a state government is hog-tied year after year by the long-term effects of financial chicanery, you blame the unions. If government cuts services drastically while refusing to even entertain the possibility of a tax, you say government spending and taxation are out of control.

In the honesty recession, if the unemployment rate stays in the double digits for years, you say jobless benefits have become too attractive. The minimum wage is out of control.

In the honesty recession, everything is out of control.

We’ll swallow just about anything, apparently. This hostility toward government-sector unions has a sick, surreal component to it – a bit of Stockholm syndrome among those of us in the private sector. As our lot has worsened, the public unions, with their crazy cost-of-living increases and pensions, have begun looking positively lavish.

Who benefits from us seeing it that way? Whoever could it be? And who is it that loves to hear us say: If we’re getting hosed, then shouldn’t those guys get hosed, too?

Well, they will. Rest assured. They have and they will. There is probably no fix to the budget problems facing the government that doesn’t involve taking away the things that government promised – negotiated, signed and promised – to workers.

What’s hard to understand is the glee, the relish that so many seem to take in it. Like people never knew a teacher or called a cop. The battle in Wisconsin has sparked some interesting comment threads on Facebook – at least it has on my wall – as well as some inane ones. It’s clear that a lot of people think unions are the entire problem.

It’s so nice and neat. The unions did it.

A recent poll shows that support for unions is dwelling near a quarter-century low – about 45 percent of those surveyed in early February by the Pew Research Center had a positive view of labor unions. Actual unionization is also waning – about 12 percent of American workers were unionized in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s way down from 20 percent in 1983. Right about the time middle-class wages started to flatline.

One further statistic: The median earnings for a union employee in 2010 was $47,684, federal statistics show. For the non-union worker, it was $37,284.

Make of that what you will, but only in the honesty recession can you describe the union salary as lavish.

Look, I’ve read the stories about the unfireable teachers sitting in rubber rooms in New York City. I know that benefits for state workers are better than for a lot of us in the private sector. We’re in a recession, and state employees are going to take a hit – just as they’ve already taken hits. But the idea of their blithe untouchability – their greedy, rapacious appetites for your money; their supposed destruction of Detroit; their menacing political influence – is riding high, now that we’re in the honesty recession.

Of all the Facebook aphorisms, the one that sticks the hardest in my craw, is this: In this day and age, we no longer need unions.

This day and age? The one still reeling from an abuse of financial power that makes old Chuck Ponzi look like a piker? The day and age where the typical worker’s salary is as flat as a pita? Is that the day and age we’re talking about?

It’s crazy, this honesty recession. It’s out of control.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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