Sunday, February 20, 2011

Making Sense of the Wisconsin Standoff

When it comes to unions, few are indifferent. Some feel they are an indispensable part of a free society. Others feel they are responsible for overpaid, inefficient workers that can suck the lifeblood out of a struggling company.

My father was a union cement mason. And although our lifestyle was far from extravagant, we always had food on the table and clothes on our backs so I grew up with a healthy respect for the value of a union livelihood. I will certainly concede that some of the criticisms of unions have an element of truth to them. Yes, some unions have been guilty of greed and outright corruption. But so have some of the companies they have negotiated with.

Unions came into being to satisfy a need. It would be safe to say that if all employers treated their employees fairly and with compassion when it came to pay and working conditions, there would be no unions. Of course working conditions (at least in America) are a whole lot better than say, the brutal conditions before and during the Industrial Revolution which led to the formation of labor unions and the right of
collective bargaining. Indeed, there are those who feel that the ability to collectively bargain is an essential human right.

With this in mind, we have the standoff in Wisconsin which has been said to be
A Watershed Moment for Public-Sector Unions.

In the half century since Wisconsin became the first state to give its public workers the right to bargain collectively, government employee unions have mushroomed in size and power — so much so that they now account for more than half of the nation’s union members.

But the legislative push by Wisconsin’s new governor, Scott Walker, a Republican, to slash the collective bargaining rights of his state’s public employees could prove a watershed for public-sector unions, perhaps signaling the beginning of a decline in their power — both at the bargaining table and in politics.

By flooding the State Capitol in Madison with more than 10,000 protesters, labor unions are doing their utmost to block Mr. Walker’s plans. They helped persuade Democratic state senators to slip out of the building this week to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to pass the legislation.

Depending on ones viewpoint, what the Democrats did was either illegal or an example of civil disobedience. But after all of the setbacks that unions have suffered in recent years, the threat of losing its collective bargaining rights demanded that a line be drawn in the sand. If this attempt at neutering the union were to be successful, there would surely be others who would use the same tactics against other unions across the country to bust them.

And make no mistake; this is first and foremost about union busting. The deficit that was the pretense for demanding the union pay and benefit cuts was a result of Governor Walker turning an inherited budget surplus into a deficit by offering a business tax cut upon assuming office that has been said to benefit those who voted for him. In addition, the union was willing and able to negotiate the requested pay and benefit cuts but the governor was unwilling to sit across the table from them, but instead demanded that they first give up much of their collective bargaining rights.

Then there is the smell of partisan politics. While claiming the need to strip collective bargaining rights from its public employee unions, the governor excluded the police and firefighter unions who have benefit packages that are at least as generous. Why? Most believe it is because these unions tend to support Republicans unlike teachers unions who tend to actively support Democrats.

A number of liberal commentators observing the standoff in Wisconsin fear that since unions are about the last group of any significance that funds Democratic candidates, crushing whatever is left of the unions would give the Republican contributors even more power over our elections (as if they need it.)

Unions in America have long ago fallen on hard times. Today, only about 7% of private sector American workers are in unions. Not coincidentally, corporate America is reaping handsome profits while the typical American worker is not sharing in the prosperity to say the least. Harold Meyerson in a Washington Post op-ed article
Hard Times for Workers on Labor Day 2010 writes:

Unlike European workers, unlike their own parents and grandparents who lived in a much more heavily unionized America, U.S. workers are now powerless to stop their employers from pocketing all the change.

Through the weakness of our labor laws, the reports say, private-sector American workers can no longer form unions. Human Rights Watch documents how corporations that are model (and highly profitable) employers in Europe and frequently collaborate with unions there descend to American employer norms -- denying workers the right to join unions -- when they come over here. Freedom House, citing the near-impossibility of forming unions in this country, laments that the United States cannot be classed among the 41 nations that afford their workers full freedoms.
So for me, the union in Wisconsin is definitely David going up against Goliath as represented by the Republican governor and his state assembly. For those who are interested, The New York Times offers one of their Room for Debate articles
Wisconsin's Blow to Union Power which includes differing views on this issue from across the political spectrum. I fully agree with the view that the right to collective bargaining is part of The Essence of Democracy.
But collective bargaining there must be -- not a single-minded devotion to the interests of the most fortunate. That is why Wisconsin workers are right on the issues in Madison -- and why the emulation of Governor Walker by other Republican governors is a step backward away from the civilized world. The unions have made a stand for free people!

No comments: