New Orleans It’s hard hearing and reading the reports about the attack on unions in Wisconsin. After a life of avoiding the mass emails of any listserv, I ended up on one arbitrarily when I joined a group, so I’ve been inundated with hyperbolic messages that find the pushback in Wisconsin by labor heroic and inspiring, all of which is true, but unsatisfying to me partially because both sides seem to be debating endlessly the framing and content of the issues involved in wages and benefits. Wages and benefits are simply a way to get caught in the weeds now. The attack in Wisconsin and other states is plain and simply over the right of any union of public employees to exist and, even if allowed to exist, the assault questions any value of collective bargaining or voice for workers.
Unions know the wage and benefit train has already left the station in Wisconsin and seem to concede it. The Times today reports as much:
“The flip has emboldened Mr. Walker, the new Republican governor who has proposed the cuts to benefits and bargaining rights, arguing that he desperately needs to bridge a deficit expected to reach $3.6 billion for the coming two-year budget.
Union leaders have said they would accept the financial terms of Mr. Walker’s proposal. The more controversial provisions, though, would strip public employees of collective-bargaining rights. (emphasis added)
In Whitewater, Ben Penwell, a lawyer whose wife is a public employee, said he saw no reason to strip away workers’ bargaining rights if they had agreed to benefit cuts.
“They’re willing to do what’s necessary fiscally without giving up rights in the future,” he said.
And Pat Wellnitz, working in his accounting office on Sunday, wondered why such bargaining provisions were needed if the real problem was simply saving money.
“That’s pretty drastic even for a staunch Republican,” he said.”
The only hope in Wisconsin seems to be that the very hard, bluntness of the power play by Governor Scott Walker is so extreme in its attack on unions that it fails in Times’ columnist David Brooks’ words the “fairness” test or the old Clinton test of “sharing the pain” by favoring small businesses and more Republican unions of police and fire, while slamming teachers and other public workers. Furthermore as indicated above Wisconsin is not a “hater-state” of what I would call the New South yet (Arizona being the most spectacular example of this new taxonomy), so some of the citizens get the fact that this is tactical extremism.
Other states will not be so lucky. Places like Ohio already saw 8000 plus home health care workers that were state reimbursed loss collective bargaining rights by the swipe of a Governor’s pen. There are similar concerns in Michigan for 30 to 40,000 publicly subsidized workers there. Reading about the spitball fights that the Republican governor of New Jersey has waged with teachers and others there, it’s clear that the strategy is clearly to “defund” the progressive movement and launch attacks on as many battlefields as possible against unions and others that might be part of such forces. I’m worried about other Republican presidential-wannabes and what they might feel they have to do in order to stay in the game. Will we see Louisiana’s Bobbie Jindal or Florida’s Rick Scott try to dismantle what exists of collective bargaining in these states?
Collective bargaining, independent of economics, used to be seen as a foundationally appropriate aspiration for working people connected to the freedoms of speech and assembly embedded in America’s most honored and cherished traditions. We cannot allow a situation where the argument simply devolves to unions were “once a good thing” or that we allow unions to exist in principle but not in reality.
Wisconsin and the other states following its lead raise the specter that we are now moving past the tipping point for unions and much to quickly to the vanishing point, unless we change what we are saying and doing pretty damn quickly.