I’ll admit up front that I’m shooting from the hip here. There are many aspects to what is happening in Wisconsin right now with parallels to several past instances in the country in the fight over workers’ rights, unions, and moneyed interests, but I frankly don’t have the time to research them all right now and get something up before it all comes to a head.
Isn’t it interesting, though, that we are collectively cheering what is happening in the Middle East right now and something similar is happening right here and people don’t seem to be paying attention to what’s at stake?
I grant you, it’s a stretch. But on principles, not so much. We’re talking about who has the right to speak to power and over what. The protesters in Madison aren’t having their internet access and phone service pulled and it’s doubtful the military will be called in, but on the other hand the Wisconsin state police are being asked to go get the now-labeled Wisconsin 14 and bring them back to the state capitol to vote on something that is clearly a stripping of the right of petition and assembly. So this can become very quickly a constitutional issue and that’s scary, because right now the Supreme Court has been decidedly against workers’ rights.
Governor Scott is at least being clear. I’ll give him credit, he’s not ducking questions about what he’s trying to do. Wisconsin, like many states, has a budget crisis. He’s already gotten concessions from the unions, a lot of money. The unions have not balked at doing their civic duty in terms of agreeing to pay cuts, freezes on raises, and some concessions on benefits to help the state meet its budgetary responsibilities. But he’s going further and asking that all these unions be stripped of their collective bargaining abilities in order to make sure they never again demand something from the state that the legislature or the governor believes they don’t deserve. In other words, Governor Scott doesn’t ever want to have to sit down and ask them for concessions ever again—he wants to be able to just take what he wants. Given that a GOP legislator has today made the suggestion that the bill can be modified to make the suspensions temporary and that Walker has categorically rejected the compromise makes it even clearer what he’s attempting.
No one can argue that the budget problems are a fabrication. In the past, unions have flexed their muscle over similar problems and occasionally been their own worst enemies, resulting in lay-offs, closing down of programs, and so forth. I myself can certainly see how unions abuse their power. They have a position to maintain, which is to stand in opposition to management. Management is concerned with bottom lines, not people, so unions are the enemy. For their part, unions could care less about individual needs and will jettison, ostracize, or bully individuals who aren’t acting in lock-step with unions policies. A union will roll over an individual in pursuit of its collective agenda just as readily as management will. Neither side has a lock on enlightened behavior.
This is one of those times when management has the more legitimate argument over the money matters. States are facing bankruptcy. They don’t have the money to maintain status quo. In this, the dreams of the Grover Norquist’s have been realized—the beast, government, is being starved.
But that’s not what is currently at stake. The unions have met with the governor and agreed to help. But Scott wants to end the practice of having to sit down with unions and negotiate over this. He’s made some Right To Work noises as well—individuals should not be “forced” to pay union dues if they don’t want to. On an abstract moral level, I can even agree with that, but we don’t live in an abstract world where moral principle trumps bottom line thinking and the practice of power. We live in a world of zero-sum games and abusive relationships between management and labor. The reality is that the rights everyone, union or otherwise, have come to enjoy since the end of the Great Depression have been won by unions who stood up to management and said “We are not parts.”
This is vital to understand, because it rests at the heart of all these struggles. What is the purpose of institutions that employ people? For the businessman, it is always to succeed—to make money, to expand, to compete successfully in a chosen field, to dominate. Anything that appears to impede that aim is an enemy and must be gotten rid of. But for the employees, the purpose of that institution is to provide them a livelihood. Often these two aims synch up and work in tandem, cooperatively. But that is an accident of circumstance not a meeting of minds.
Unions address issues which are not primary to business. Business would like to treat employees the same way as raw materials. Parts. Interchangeable, replaceable, expendable. It gauls a business-owner to suggest that some people are irreplaceable. It has nothing to do with their aim.
I’m speaking collectively here, not individually. As individuals, business owners run that gamut from concerned, empathic citizens to Scrooge. But business is a systemic organism, it has mechanisms in place that function regardless who is sitting in the CEO’s chair, and the enormous momentum of these things cannot be turned on a dime. There is a utilitarian aspect to them that is difficult to attack. What it means is that individuals are simply not important within the framework of the machine.
Unfortunately, that can happen within the framework of unions as well. But the primary focus of unions is at least that people are intrinsically different from raw material. People are not parts.
I talk about businesses even though this issue is a government one, but consider: government is an employer; it has a product (service); and it has to operate on budgets. It’s aim is not to make money, but in many other respects there is a shared template. The chief difference, though, is in the stated aim of government, which is to serve the people. And in this we have for a long time gone about electing our officials from the wrong standpoint. We’ve been hiring leaders who claim to want to put government on a sound business footing, we’ve been told that business leaders ought to be put in charge, that running a business is good preparation for running a government. We’re now seeing the fruits of that philosophical aim.
I mentioned constitutional issues. What I mean by that is that we have, under the Constitution, the right to peaceably assemble and we have the right of redress of grievances. Those are the key components of all union organization. The Constitution does not say how we are to exercise those freedoms, only that we have them. Stripping unions of the right of collective bargaining is an assault on both those freedoms and Scott knows very well what it is he’s handing future administrations, which is a muzzled work force.
Like other freedoms people take for granted today, working conditions and fair pay scales were wrested from those in power, often in bloody contests argued in the streets with axe handles and sometimes bullets. We are in a period of retrenchment by those who have never been pleased with that loss of authority. It’s not just in this instance, but in every instances. Those who rail against womens rights, affirmative action, students’ rights, health care, and any and all regulation of industry, be it financial or manufacturing, are people who either do not understand what came before or are working hand-in-glove with those who wish to take those rights away and establish a plutocracy in which money is all that matters and access to a middle class is a prize to be won by being a good servant.
The unions conceded to Scott’s demands to help balance his budget. Taking away their ability to bargain collectively is an attempt to set those concessions in stone and prevent workers from ever again petitioning for progress in the treatment of employees. This is over and above anything he should have a right to ask. Money right now is being used as a boogeyman to scare people into obeisance.
This is not the way to solve these problems. And if anyone believes it will stop there, all you have to do is look around at the renewed Right To Work efforts across the country. These are union-busting efforts and will result in workers losing pay and benefits in the long run.
I feel like slapping people who vote Republican and shouting “Wake up! They are not on your side! They’re trying to screw you and your children!” The only things they want to spend money on are weapons and corporate welfare. The only reason to continually cut education funding is to procure a populace too stupid to look out for its own good. Everything else follows from there.
Wake up, people!
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