21 February 2011

Wisconsin: Strike or Surrender

In Wisconsin, embattled public-employee unions find themselves dependent upon the solidarity of Democratic state legislators. Democrats oppose the Republican governor's cost-cutting legislation for self-interested reasons. As some progressive opinionators have observed, the Wisconsin plan to strip the unions of most collective bargaining rights, make union dues voluntary for members, and subject unions to annual recertification votes, can be interpreted as a "union busting" measure with a larger, partisan purpose of undermining both a reliably Democratic voting base and a major source of money for political advertising. Turning the labor dispute into a partisan showdown, as the progressive opinonators apparently want to do, is only going to harden attitudes on all sides. It'll only confirm the impression among Republicans that Democrats and "Big Labor" have a symbiotic relationship, and a parasitic one with taxpayers. However you feel about the overall Republican agenda, however, let's remember that the Democratic party's future is not the main issue here. The Wisconsin unions shouldn't stake everything on Democratic support. Public pressure on the fugitive legislators to return home and do their jobs will only increase, as will pressure on teachers and other public employees to do likewise. Legislators being what they are, it should be assumed that a Democrat will eventually be enticed sufficiently through the usual horse trading to report back to Madison and betray the unions. This seems more likely than the governor compromising his bill; he's told the national media that not one provision of it is negotiable. "Collective bargaining costs money," he complained in an interview today to explain why stripping the unions of most of their bargaining rights is necessary to reduce the deficit. If the public sector in Wisconsin takes itself seriously as organized labor, they should compel the governor to recalculate the cost of his plan. If they want to retain their hard-earned rights, even in the face of a hostile majority that calls them undeserved privileges, they'll probably have to re-earn them, and that means a strike. It can mean nothing else. Party politics most likely will not save the Wisconsin unions, nor is it assured that old-school labor action will let them save themselves. Nor will the matter ever be as simple as private-sector labor disputes. There's a level of accountability to the public for public employees that doesn't apply in the private sector. At the same time, the public, like any employer, has a moral obligation to treat its employees decently. Too many ordinary people are inclined today to dismiss public employees as mere parasites, as if each one owed his job to his cousin the ward boss and was incompetent otherwise. It may prove that the people as well as the political class will need to be compelled to respect the labor of its teachers and other bureaucrats by doing without it for a time. The idea, from my outside perspective, isn't to immunize public employees from making sacrifices or from contributing a more just share to their pension funds. The idea is to test once more the premise that workers in any job, in any sector, have rights that employers, whether capitalists or taxpayers, are bound to respect. Those rights don't exist in nature; they must be asserted and fought for until those who disagree concede the point. If the Wisconsin public workers aren't thinking about a strike right now, regardless of what the Democrats do, all their demonstrations of the last week will have been a waste of the news media's time and their own.

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