Monday, February 21, 2011

The Tide Will Rise

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is out for more than money. He's out for blood. He won't quit until he drives a stake through the hearts of public employee unions in the Badger State. That much is clear.

How this current saga will end is anyone's guess. The amazing protests that have taken over the Wisconsin State Capitol and downtown Madison might wear down, if not Walker, the few moderate Republican state senators remaining. Or the GOP might try to eliminate collective bargaining without needing the "Wisconsin 14" -- the Senate Democrats who have crossed the Illinois border to prevent a vote on the budget bill -- by pulling the collective bargaining provisions out as separate legislation (which would require only 17 senators present; there are 19 Republicans). The outcome? A general strike perhaps. Wisconsin unions and Democratic lawmakers have already publicly agreed to accept sizable concessions on health benefits and pensions as demanded by Walker and the Republicans -- on average, an 8 percent cut in public workers' take-home pay -- which would severely cripple the state economy.

The Governor has said that this is about balancing the budget, not destroying unions. Few believe him of course, especially given his track record as Milwaukee County Executive, but that's what his talking points tell him to say. I don't believe him the same way I don't believe that congressional Republicans are serious about the budget deficit and national debt. Walker's first action as governor was to propose and enact corporate tax cuts equivalent to the cost of the cuts he is now seeking to impose upon public employees. Congressional Republicans pushed for the same thing, the extension of Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, which added nearly one trillion dollars to the national debt. Republicans are making these fiscal crises worse and are attempting to balance the budget on the backs of public workers, making cuts to programs like food aid for poor pregnant women and women with children, but refusing to ask those with means to sacrifice one whit.

Wisconsin Democrats and union leaders have rightly drawn a line in the sand when it comes to the elimination of collective bargaining rights (over anything other than wage increases below the rate of inflation). Whether you like them or not, Americans have the right to organize and join unions and employees ought to have the right to come together and collectively bargain wages, benefits and working conditions. This right is outlined in the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. Republicans, however, have succeeded in convincing too many working families that their brothers and sisters in the public sector are the enemy.

As Paul Krugman eloquently writes in the New York Times (2/21/2011), the preservation of unions is also a matter of balancing political power.
For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.
But Mr. Walker isn’t interested in making a deal. Partly that’s because he doesn’t want to share the sacrifice: even as he proclaims that Wisconsin faces a terrible fiscal crisis, he has been pushing through tax cuts that make the deficit worse. Mainly, however, he has made it clear that rather than bargaining with workers, he wants to end workers’ ability to bargain.

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

Why average Americans are willing to give selfish corporations and capitalist greed a pass, but demonize other working folks is beyond me. Why must so many Americans embrace a race to the bottom rather than the notion of a rising tide? Jealousy of wages and benefits that unionized workers have won for themselves has turned to rage as the economy has soured, even though it is often based on bad information (public employees in Wisconsin make LESS in wages and benefits than their private sector counterparts). That rage can turn in one of two directions -- it can become productive or divisive. The likes of Scott Walker and Republican bankrollers, such as Koch Industries, are counting on the latter.

As an alternative, those oppressed workers, primarily in the private sector, could choose to organize themselves as their public-sector brethren have done to better their lot -- or take political action to strengthen social supports, job training opportunities, and demand greater equity in U.S. tax policy. Or they can choose to embrace a "Life Sucks" mantra. "I suffered [a job loss/salary cut/reduced benefits], so those other working stiffs should have to suck it up, too." But why demand blood from a stone? If one is serious about shared sacrifice, why not demand reasonable concessions from public workers, along with tax reforms to close corporate loopholes and higher tax rates or income tax surcharges on millionaires?

Such concessions from public employees can be achieved through the collective bargaining process, both at a local as well as at a state level. Look what Vermont achieved in 2010 under a Republican Governor by working with unions. Walker's approach was to unilaterally propose something and refuse to negotiate or even discuss it with public employees. Nice guy that, Mr. Walker. But he can't be all bad because, after all, God talks to him. Indeed, his approach sets him apart from some other freshman Republican governors, including Iowa's Terry Branstad, Michigan's Rick Snyder, and Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett. California Governor Jerry Brown (a Democrat), running a state with far worse budgetary problems, won't resort to union busting either.

From the Wall Street Journal (2/18/2011):
"We're going to go negotiate with our unions in a collective-bargaining fashion to achieve goals," the Republican governor [Michigan's Rick Snyder] said in an interview. "It's not picking fights. It's about getting people to come together and say here are the facts, here are the common-ground solutions."
Former Clinton Labor Secretary and Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich argues
that rising income inequality is at the heart of our nation's and our states' fiscal challenges:

So the problem isn’t that “we’ve” been spending too much. It’s that most Americans have been getting a steadily smaller share of the nation’s total income.

At the same time, the super-rich have been contributing a steadily-declining share of their own incomes in taxes to support what the nation needs — both at the federal and at the state levels.

The coming showdowns and shutdowns must not mask what’s going on. Democrats should make sure the public understands what’s really at stake.

Yes, of course, wasteful and unnecessary spending should be cut. That means much of the defense budget, along with agricultural subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare.

But America is the richest nation in the world, and “we’ve” never been richer. There’s no reason for us to turn on our teachers, our unionized workers, our poor and needy, and our elderly. The notion that “we” can no longer afford it is claptrap.

From an education policy standpoint, have teachers' unions always been on the right side of the issues? Of course not. The Wisconsin Education Association Council is an example of one that has been slow to change as compared with other NEA affiliates such as the neighboring Illinois Education Association and many state AFT chapters. Walker's election finally got WEAC to read the tea leaves and advance a proposal to embrace a number of school reforms rather late in the game. That said, I fully and wholeheartedly support the current organizing efforts of WEAC and its right to represent Wisconsin teachers at the bargaining table.

But this is bigger than education and teaching. There is a larger agenda at play here. Republicans have effectively sought to create a wedge between working people -- a divide and conquer strategy that exploits the economic turmoil and uncertainty currently gripping this country. At the same time, they are pushing an anti-tax agenda with two purposes in mind -- (1) to give huge tax breaks to corporate interests and the wealthiest Americans, and (2) to bleed the public sector dry and reduce the size of government regardless of the impact on the poor and elderly. The result: historic income inequality in the United States.

Too many Democrats are complicit for failing to see the forest for the trees and for allowing Republicans to set the narrative. (President Obama's proposed 50% cut to the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a case in point.) Progressives need to take the elephant by the ears and shake some sense into it. We need leaders who will tell it like it is and propose policies to move America forward, not backwards. My hope is that the activism and energy present in Wisconsin will be channeled productively and over the long haul, not just to fight anti-union crusades, but also to build a state and nation that aspires to greatness, excellence and prosperity for all of its people -- from those at the top to the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us.

The tide will rise.

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