Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dairy State Distress: Part 1

Given that I live in the state that has become Ground Zero in the fight for worker rights, I've so far been silent here on the subject of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's war on public employees and their unions.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that work and family have taken even more of my energies than usual in recent months and pushed blogging down on my priority list. The second is that, even though this blog is semi-anonymous, my work as a journalist has made me cautious about public expression of opinion on subjects that circumstances require me to write about professionally. That's not a rule I follow without exception, to be sure. But it has governed some of my choices about what to write about and what not to, and how I write about certain topics as well.

My silence doesn't, however, reflect any ambivalence on the subject itself. There are many things that I view in shades of gray, aware that no side is completely wrong and many sides have an element of the truth in their favor. The battle going on in Wisconsin is not one of them.

Our governor, through his budget repair bill, is in the midst of a breathtaking power grab, one that is driven only partially by the state's straitened fiscal condition, and one that could easily have been avoided except for greed and hubris.

I know blogging standards call for me to post a variety of links to outside verification of what I'm about to assert. But here I need to cover too much ground to take the time to do that.

In case it is not already abundantly clear to the outside world, this battle is not about specific union concessions on wages or benefits. Days after the governor's budget repair bill being introduced, the state unions involved announced their willingness to accept the wage and benefit concessions as written into the bill.
What they opposed was the bill's wholesale stripping of all collective bargaining rights for local and state public employees except the right to negotiate wages, and that only up to the Consumer Price Index.

That bill represented a sharp, 180-degree turn from 50 years of Wisconsin law and practice -- a massive clawback in worker rights without the sort of public debate and consensus that ought to accompany such a huge turnabout.

Which is not to say that such a turnabout would be justified in any case, as you'll see from my further argument below.

I've followed labor issues for more than two decades, writing about them for a major metropolitan newspaper for nine years and, since then, as an independent journalist for a variety of outlets. I have wherever I have had the opportunity been a union member (and for two years I did work at a non-union paper), and via a small part-time newspaper job I have currently, I am a union member now. As a journalist, I will frankly acknowledge that I had more respect for unions and workers and their role than some of my colleagues and some of my readers. To the extent that my sympathies for unions meant that their story got more attention in the paper and in what I wrote than they might have otherwise, I plead guilty. But I will also vigorously defend the fairness of everything I've written to all parties involved: union, employer, worker. 

In fact, I consider worker rights, including the right to collective bargaining, to be as fundamental to democracy and to the good society as any other rights. They are as fundamental as the freedom of speech and assembly, the freedom of religion, and most of the other rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. (I don't consider the 2nd Amendment one of those fundamental rights, by the way, but I know that's a non-starter politically, so I'm not even going to debate that point.) I will acknowledge that, to date, my position on worker rights is not yet reflected in our Constitution, which is to me mainly evidence that the document is not yet perfect. I still want an Equal Rights Amendment, too.

Are unions imperfect? Absolutely. Have public employee unions (and private sector ones, for that matter) shot themselves in the foot at times? No question. Can workers be happy and productive in their workplaces without a union? Undoubtedly some can.

All that is beside the point. Inept politicians have not led us to chuck out wholesale the institutions of democracy; corrupt law enforcement has not led us to abandon the professional policing of our communities; sporadic legal misfeasance has not led us to abandon the rule of law.

For whatever faults they have--and I believe their faults have often been amplified by propaganda and bad journalism, while their benefits have been muted and obscured by the same forces--unions in both the public and the private sectors have been a bulwark against the winner-take-all economy and society. Their continued weakening has helped pave the way for an oligarchy of wealth that more and more controls our public and even private lives.

The actions of Gov. Walker--and of the Republican-dominated legislature, including a state Assembly that abruptly cut off debate early Friday morning and then held a vote and adjourned so quickly that some Democrats could not even cast their votes--are divisive, domineering, and bald-faced oppression. They are also deeply irresponsible, in the service of ideological extremism. And that will be the subject of my next post.


  1. Frank Zeidler's rolling over in his grave

  2. Not on your side though, Frank would have been appalled at this.

  3. Zeidler opposed public employee strikes, it's true. Wisconsin has not had them since the mid-1970s, thanks to a mediation-arbitration law. I see no evidence that he opposed collective bargaining rights for public employees.

  4. The person who is really rolling in his grave is Fighting Bob LaFollette...

  5. He would have been opposed to a mob taking over the Capital. He would have been appalled at some of the thugs at work here. He had first had experience with this stuff and had some bitter experiences with the racism of the unions at his time. They really ganged up against him to get him out.


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