We Are Not Parts

February 21, 2011 | By | 13 Replies More

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.

Image by Stillfx at Dreamstime (with permission)

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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About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (13)

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  1. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Mark-

    Great post, and I give you credit for not having ideological blinders on. Most articles I've read on the topic are either 100% pro-union or 100% anti-union. Your points are valid, I think. Bureaucratic structures tend to ossify and become less-responsive to people's needs over time, whether those structures are governmental or union. Unions have done some amazing things over the past century, chronicled in great films like Harlan County, USA.

    You mention that it's doubtful that the military will be called in, I wonder if you noticed the Governor's threat to call in the National Guard, while using martial rhetoric?

    At the press conference, before he talked about the National Guard, Walker used highly charged language suggesting that labor leaders would create a potentially dangerous situation. He said there were those who may try to “blow this up” and that there were labor leaders who would seek to “incite” the public workers.

    It was within this context of implied agitation and unrest that he answered questions about possible use of the National Guard. He said he had spoken to the National Guard, and that “they were fully prepared to handle whatever may occur” and further that he thought it prudent to “plan for the worst.”

    Walker also referred to himself as the “commander and chief” of the state and said further that the National Guard would “respond to whatever the governor may call for.” He concluded by assuring the people of Wisconsin that he was “fully prepared for whatever may happen.”

  2. No, I hadn't seen that. Well well. He may literally end up shooting Republicans in the foot (feet?).

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    By the way, it never hurts to set the record straight: Ezra Klein explains why the unions are not at fault for Wisconsin's fiscal problems:

    The Badger State was actually in pretty good shape. It was supposed to end this budget cycle with about $120 million in the bank. Instead, it's facing a deficit. Why? I'll let the state's official fiscal scorekeeper explain (pdf):

    More than half of the lower estimate ($117.2 million) is due to the impact of Special Session Senate Bill 2 (health savings accounts), Assembly Bill 3 (tax deductions/credits for relocated businesses), and Assembly Bill 7 (tax exclusion for new employees).

    In English: The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it helped turn a surplus into a deficit [see update at end of post]. As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda."

    But even that's not the full story here. Public employees aren't being asked to make a one-time payment into the state's coffers. Rather, Walker is proposing to sharply curtail their right to bargain collectively. A cyclical downturn that isn't their fault, plus an unexpected reversal in Wisconsin's budget picture that wasn't their doing, is being used to permanently end their ability to sit across the table from their employer and negotiate what their health insurance should look like.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Eric Alterman has this general guidance to offer:

    "What is not understood by those who cover contemporary conservatives (and, one fears, by those who negotiate with them) is that while they like to talk about all kinds of values, these are always subordinated to a single, unchanging and uncompromised goal: class warfare."

    "The Coming Class War," The Nation, January 24, 2010, p. 10

  5. Brynn Jacobs says:

    The President of the Wisconsin Police Union (Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association- WLEA)argues against Governor Walker's union-busting bill:

    "This bill has some provisions that make no sense, unless the basic intent is to bust unions," he recently wrote, in a post found on the WLEA website. "One provision makes it illegal for public employers to collect dues for labor organizations. The employer can take deductions for the United Way, or other organizations, but they are prohibited from collecting union dues.

    "How does that repair the budget?"

    Walker's proposal would effectively remove "half of our membership," he said, by taking communications, campus, DMV and capitol officers out of the union.

    "That's pretty close to half of our membership," Fuller said. "I think that any reasonable person could understand how that could be a problem for a union."

    Yet, he's still prepared to use force against the protesters if ordered to do so: "…whether the police agree or disagree with their governor's politics, they would "absolutely" carry out any order given to them … even if that order included using force against their fellow Americans gathered in peaceful protest."

  6. Mike M. says:

    Brynn,-"he’s still prepared to use force against the protesters if ordered to do so: “…whether the police agree or disagree with their governor’s politics, they would “absolutely” carry out any order given to them … even if that order included using force against their fellow Americans gathered in peaceful protest.”

    Is this a direct quote from Governor Walker or just conjecture by the Union President?

    In my opinion anyone who would "absolutely carry out any order given to them" (when fulfillment of that act is in direct opposition to their True Will or personal moral code) is a fool, and a dangerous & cowardly robot.

  7. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Mike M:

    That quotation appears to come from the journalist for RawStory's article, Stephen Webster. I cannot find a source for the original statement made by the Union President, although it is noted that he was speaking with the Webster, the journalist. It appears to be based, however, on the union president's sentiments. Here's a more complete quotation:

    "I have worked with the University of Wisconsin police officers that are there, along with the capitol police officers, and certainly I've worked with the state patrol officers because I'm a state patrol inspector. I'm not able to even fathom that any of those police officers would not carry out whatever orders were given to do their job.

    "I guess that's the one ironic thing about this," he continued. "Last night my wife asked me to make a sign for her to take down there to protest. On that day, I thought to myself I could be making a protest sign for my wife to take down there … Then I could be down there confronting my wife with the protest sign that I made. God, you see … That's … That's my job.

    MikeM says:"In my opinion anyone who would “absolutely carry out any order given to them” (when fulfillment of that act is in direct opposition to their True Will or personal moral code) is a fool, and a dangerous & cowardly robot."

    Agreed, 100%

  8. MikeM says:”In my opinion anyone who would “absolutely carry out any order given to them” (when fulfillment of that act is in direct opposition to their True Will or personal moral code) is a fool, and a dangerous & cowardly robot.”

    Gotta disagree a bit here. We rely on the police obeying lawful orders, otherwise the entire system of courts and officers thereof up to legislators and the rule of law crumbles. The police do not have the privilege of picking and choosing which laws they will defend and which they will defy. That leads to anarchy. If Gov. Walker gives them a lawful order, they are bound to obey it if they intend to keep their jobs.

    You statement is 100% true in the case of unlawful orders.

    We may disagree strongly with some situations and wish someone would simply refuse to follow through, but the flip side of this is that if the police are ordered to defend a clinic from anti-abortion zealots who are threatening to illegally shut it down, some of us would wish those officers to obey the law and not—which is entirely likely—act upon their "true will and personal moral code" and permit the illegal action.

  9. Mike M. says:

    Mark-Remember first of all I said "absolutely carry out any order given them."

    I have to strongly disagree with your rebuttal. When we allow arbitrary and draconian laws to dictate our beliefs, and then allow the creation and dissolution of such laws to continually re-set our internal moral compass, we have lost. What have we lost? The great gifts of personal volition, internal values and intuitions that make us human enough to resist becoming complicit pawns in someone else's games.

    Anarchy is preferable to a system of cowering before immoral and anti-human laws set forth by the 'agenda du jour' of corrupt or compromised politicians and corporations.

    I can think of literally thousands of laws and "lawful orders" that permit the slaughter and subjugation of humanity–can't you? History is replete with the stench of them.

    What would you say to the soldiers who napalmed Cambodian babies during the Vietnam conflict? And used Agent Orange to defoliate the jungle? What would you say to the pilot of the Enola Gay who vaporized countless innocent peasants, and elderly couples, and infants? What would you say to the National Guard members who shot to death peacefully protesting students at Kent State University? How about the massacres of Native Americans? The industrial polluters of the environment operating within the law, yet devastating our planet? All these culprits…obeying the "lawful orders" that you put such devotion towards. Thought-Full and totally conscious people avoid putting themselves into positions which may betray their deeply held moral convictions. But if the choice is between your job and your "soul", which would you choose?

  10. Miles says:

    Doctors, lawyers, police, and journalists all have to refrain from discriminating against the perpetrators of injustice in some cases in order to uphold a higher principle: trust in the impartiality of the system. When such a principle is the motivating factor, it should surely be considered a part of the person's moral code. The question for the police officer above is whether the moral urgency of defending union rights is so great that it is worth violating the competing moral principle of impartiality, and whether the personal consequences for him will be worth it. It's a tough call and I can see both sides on this one.

    As for Mark's article, according to Maddow, Walker gave a large tax break to the rich recently, and back when he was a county guy he used a "budgetary crisis" to bust unions as well, so my default hypothesis is that this is a manufactured crisis by the governor, and that the unions were generous to agree to cuts at all.

  11. Mike—

    The only answer to your objections is: it depends.

    Of course if it's a choice between your job and your soul, you quit your job.

    Being told to clear a demonstration, a perfectly legal order, and being told to use violent force to do so, even up to lethal force, is something else.

    I learned about Walker's tax breaks too late to include in my piece—hence the "shooting from the hip" line. He has taken a page from Bush's playbook, it seems.

  12. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Mother Jones is reporting a disturbing story, if true:

    On Saturday night, when Mother Jones staffers tweeted a report that riot police might soon sweep demonstrators out of the Wisconsin capitol building—something that didn't end up happening—one Twitter user sent out a chilling public response: "Use live ammunition."

    From my own Twitter account, I confronted the user, JCCentCom. He tweeted back that the demonstrators were "political enemies" and "thugs" who were "physically threatening legally elected officials." In response to such behavior, he said, "You're damned right I advocate deadly force." He later called me a "typical leftist," adding, "liberals hate police."

    Only later did we realize that JCCentCom was a deputy attorney general for the state of Indiana.

    Indiana is dealing with very similar union-busting issues to those in Wisconsin.

  13. Tim Hogan says:

    I disagree that the problems with government budgets are any reason to revisit collective bargaining or to pass "right-to-work" legislation which would effectively gut unions.

    The Republicans are just using these issues as their latest excuse to eliminate any opposition to their fascist corporatist agenda which has moved forward greatly despite its continued destruction of America's Middle Class.

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