The union-busting attempts in Wisconsin have serious consequences for every state in the union
Look at the faces standing outside the Capitol in Madison, Wis. Whether you believe it or not, those folks are carrying on a struggle on behalf of all of us. Those workers and their families are me and you. And if they fail, the wave of anti-worker sentiment that has taken hold of statehouses from Madison to Columbus to Trenton will soon be ringing from the steps of the Capitol in Albany. And we will all be asked to answer the chorus of the old union anthem: Which side are you on, man, which side are you on?
Cheesehead Gov. Scott Walker faces a budget deficit not nearly as serious as the one facing his counterpart in New York, Andrew Cuomo. Walker has chosen to use this moment to force public workers in a state famed for its progressive history to give up almost all of their collective bargaining rights.
Walker was elected, like many other officials last fall, on a promise to cut government spending. Like his partner Chris Christie in New Jersey, he has taken that to an extreme and decided to make public employees the whipping boy for the current fiscal blues their states face.
If we let him get away with it, if we allow Walker and his ilk to blame our current problems on public workers, we will have no one to blame but ourselves. Yes we have a budget problem, yes we have to reform public pensions and benefits, but breaking the backs of unions, the very entities that brought us those benefits, is exactly the wrong way to go.
Thirty years ago President Ronald Reagan fired the unionized air traffic controllers who decided to go out on strike. It was a small union of well-paid workers, but it turned out to be a very big issue. When Reagan won that battle he established a new precedent, a new day in the American workplace in which permanent replacement workers could take the jobs of organized workers.
That was the beginning of an assault on unions and working people, an assault that continues today. It is no coincidence that in the intervening years we have seen a massive shift in income from those who work to those who own the means of production. The 1980s also saw the rise of the strangest religion to ever grab hold of the American popular imagination: the worship of CEOs.
Beginning with the fawning over Lee Iacocca and traveling all the way to today’s fascination with Donald Trump (I still can’t fathom why it is that so many people love watching fellow workers get fired by a jerk), Americans have been taught to admire people who manage and, in some cases, speculate their way to enormous wealth, when by most lights those are the folks who led us into the financial crisis that cost so many Americans their homes and livelihoods in the past two years.
You don’t have to advocate class warfare to understand this: You simply have to believe in mathematics. American workers have shared in an ever-shrinking proportion of our gross domestic product for the past 30 years, even while productivity per worker has grown.
That same period resulted in a decline in the percentage of American workers represented by unions--again no coincidence. The only sector in which union membership held its own is the public sector. Teachers and firefighters and cops and sanitation workers all held on to their rights to collective bargaining, and thus remain among those who can count on a living wage and a semi-secure retirement.
The genius of the right-wing alliance with big business is that it takes the wrath of one sector of the working class and turns it against another, leaving the masters of wealth standing seemingly blameless. Who among us has not heard, either on the radio, at the supermarket or both, a rant against a teacher or another public employee whose only crime is to expect the benefits that were promised them when they signed on to their posts? This kind of scapegoating, if we don’t put an end to it, will become the high-pitched soundtrack of a race to the bottom, a scrap between one set of workers and another for an ever-shrinking share of earnings.
Public sector jobs once represented the floor—a level of pay and benefits that those in the private sector comfortably surpassed. The squeeze on wages and benefits for workers has been so dramatic that many who once enjoyed good jobs now look with envy at their neighbors who teach or put on a uniform to go to work.
Gov. Walker does us all a favor by making this power grab obvious to all. It makes it easier for us to understand the budget challenge ahead. With all the difficulties facing Gov. Cuomo and the politicians struggling with New York’s spending problems, there is one question they must be forced to answer: Which side, Gov. Cuomo,, are you on?
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Which way did they go?: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker continues to look for missing state Senate Democrats, who fled in light of his attempted dismantling of public employee labor unions.