Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has announced that he will sign what is called “right to work” legislation. To be clear, this legislation enables workers at union work places to opt out of union membership and dues. Under this law, some workers will be able to benefit from union negotiation without paying dues. Eventually, no one will want to pay dues, unions will disappear, and workers will be left on their own to take what management will give them. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) cheered the law saying: "The public widely supports worker freedom and the potential positive impact to the state's economy can no longer be ignored."
In reality, as union membership has fallen in the U.S., so have wages. Take a minute and review the chart in this article from Huffington Post. From 1968 to the present, middle class income and union membership has declined at almost the same pace. I could call that many things. It is not freedom.
P.S. Daily Kos's great labor writer Laura Clawson gives her take on the parallel decline of unions and wages while also critiquing Nicholas Kristof for being late to the the party.
Writing in Think Progress, Pat Garofalo reports that Wisconsin legislators are now trying to attack private sector unions in the name of “preventing layoffs.” The plan is called “work-sharing,” and it would allow companies with union workers to cut hours without consulting unions. The only way working people will be safe from such schemes is to vote for politicians who support labor rights; however, they are hard to find these days. It will be interesting to see how Governor Walker reacts if this measure is passed. Who frightens him more, the Koch Brothers or the voters?
All eyes on Wisconsin – again.
[On Sundays, this blog considers intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]
Wisconsin – the Final Round?
Over a year ago, 100,000 students, teachers, police officers, fire fighters, union workers and other protests flooded into Madison, Wisconsin. They came together to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to end collective bargaining as well as other “reforms.” Later, activists collected over a million signatures to force a recall election, which will take place this Tuesday.
Polling suggests that the governor will win the election, but activists remain confident that their organization can mitigate the effect of Walker outspending his opponent Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by a ratio greater than 12:1. Barrett and his supporters have filled the state’s airwaves with commercials that have little to do with fact. However, demonstrating the power unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, Walker and his allies are using advertising to recreate reality.
This election will go a long way to testing the power of repeated messaging, which is made possible by big money, invisible funders. If Walker wins, the floodgates will open between now and November. Local TV stations will get fat with ad revenue, and voters will hate politics even more.
What if Barrett wins? His victory would signal the ongoing power of traditional forms of politics, such as get out the vote campaigns. It would give us hope that people working together can defeat the terminator-like power of big money. In his book Uprising, John Nichols talks about the impact of new media and citizen journalism during the protests. He also describes a revitalized labor movement that is focusing on what is good for workers, not just funneling money to the Democratic Party (which has not done enough to help Barrett).
Whatever happens on Tuesday, there is no denying the significance of the protests in Wisconsin and the recall effort. Nichols links the protests to those in the Middle East which preceded them and the Occupy Movement which followed. Just in the past few weeks, students in Quebec and Mexico have hit the streets to protest government policy. Occupiers in New York marched in solidarity with those protests. Even if Scott Walker keeps his job, the energy of people saying, “No,” cannot be stopped by any one election or – as the brave people of Syria show – even by bullets.
Nichols places the Wisconsin uprising in the context of the American Revolution and its leaders. He quotes the most radical thinker of the time, Thomas Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.” What happens in Wisconsin will be just one step in the creation of that new world. Let’s hope it is a step forward*.
* Governor Walker’s campaign (like President Obama’s) is using “forward” as its slogan. Clearly my idea of going forward is not the same as the governor’s. Worst of luck to him (not just the election, the indictment too).
Postscript: While reading Common Dreams today, I found that John Nichols has written a new article about how the recall and election put Wisconsin in line with its progressive tradition.
Common Dreams reports on the global impact of austerity programs, especially how they are impacting job growth. Citing a recent report by the International Labor Organization, the authors note that countries embracing cost cutting programs have seen the worst job losses (in the U.S., see Wisconsin). They argue that government intervention will do more to spur job growth. I think the scariest news comes at the end of the article when the authors cite the ILO report finding “a downward spiral of wages.” Fewer jobs. Workers with less income and security. Who wins this game? The 1%.
Common Dreams has published a review of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. The reviewer, Margaret Kimberly, asks some troubling questions about states that are now using prison labor as a revenue source. Alexander’s research found that not only are many inmates not paid, but they are charged fees, which lead to an extension of their sentences. In Wisconsin, prisoners have replaced union workers for some projects. Once upon a time, people who replaced striking works were called scabs. We need a new word to describe prisoners who are forced to replace fired union workers (only in the state of Fitzwalkerstan!).
Since the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, this problem could grow and grow. As Kimberly points out in her review, many prisons have disproportionately minority populations. We need to ask: Are we reinventing slavery?
In an interview with Jon Stewart, Senator Bernie Sanders repeatedly points to the worker protests in Wisconsin as a force for change (real change) in American politics. Sanders also demonstrates why Paul Ryan’s budget is a very bad idea.
The mainstream media is dominated by corporatist and right wing voices. However, the more open world of the Internet offers a broader range of opinions. Turn off the TV (unless you’re watching sports). Look for sources of news and opinion that support you and the people you care about. Networks don’t do that. They are PR firms for billionaires.
Samuel Culbert, a professor at the University of California Anderson School of Management, has written a very interesting op-ed about performance reviews in the New York Times. Culbert believes most performance reviews say more about whether a boss likes a subordinate than they do about performance. He uses this claim to argue against the claim that a non-union environment will lead to a more fair evaluation. Instead of a top down approach, Culbert endorses a collaborative type of review, one currently used by the police department in Madison, Wisconsin. Hopefully, the state’s governor will read this editorial and learn something.
Fire Dog Lake reports that over 100,000 workers and supporters of organized labor gathered in Wisconsin’s state capital today. Along with the report there is some great video from the rallies. Meanwhile, John Nichols questions whether the Governor could have crossed the line by admitting that he thought about having supporters disrupt the peaceful protests. Working people have not given up the fight in Madison. Let’s hope that they never do and that others learn from their example.
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explores work and life.]
Remembering What Was Gained – and Lost
Once upon a time, working people in America lived at the mercy of their employers. They labored twelve hours or more, often in unsafe conditions, with no minimum wage. The people who worked then were different too. Children and women toiled for low wages, often in the most brutal environments. Old people clung to their jobs as long as their bodies allowed because they had no Social Security or pension funds. The generations who built this country in the 19th century also included slaves and immigrants who were treated as slaves.
The middle class that so many Americans look to as proof of what makes this country special really bloomed in the 1950s and 1960s. It came to be in large part because working people organized and demanded their rights from both employers and the government. What made the middle class? A 40 hour work week that let people have time for life outside of their jobs. Minimum wage laws and union contracts that raised salaries for working people and let them buy a home or send their kids to college. Pension funds and Social Security that let people retire without living in poverty. Workplace safety rules that kept people from being killed and maimed on the job. Public schools and state universities that let many Americans get the education was once available only to the privileged.
What has happened over the last 30 years [A.R., After Reagan]? Has the middle class disappeared? No, but membership in that club is becoming more expensive. Most families rely on having two bread winners, often with multiple jobs. Few people work 40 hours. Those that are paid well work 50 hours or more. Those with low-paying jobs scramble for hours, going from part-time job to part-time job. In the 1970s, factories started to close and that trend has accelerated through the first decade of the 21st century. Unions have become less influential as their membership has declined with industrial America. Now public sector workers are a target because they are said to make too much. Maybe the real problem is that non-union working people have given up too much or had too much taken from them.
Large business interests and their agents (a.k.a. politicians from both parties and the corporate-owned media) have collaborated to move wealth and power to those who have the most. We are told by conservatives that the wealthy “make” jobs or “give” jobs. If that’s true, why have so many jobs been offshored, so many factories closed? Greed, naked greed.
What’s wrong with a me-first philosophy? Isn’t that part of our freedom as Americans? No, it’s not. The first 15 words of the Constitution (so loved by the Tea Party) clearly say that we’re in this together: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.” The Libertarian myth that has come to dominate conservative thinking goes against the most basic American values. This country was founded by leaders who understood the need for “common defence” and “general Welfare” – things we share.
America after Reagan still can claim economic wealth and displays of consumer freedom: SUVs, flat screen TVs, and iPads. But what freedoms have we lost that our grandparents enjoyed? Stable employment. A good wage. Time off to enjoy life. Protection from a boss or company that went too far. Unions have not been perfect, but they helped working people (most of whom were not union members) live a better life. They also recognized that working people shared a responsibility to help and protect each other – solidarity. Too often in today’s work world, each individual is alone, looking over his or her shoulder, afraid.
This last week’s protests in Madison probably won’t stop Governor Walker from further limiting worker rights. Other states will follow his example. What the rallies in Wisconsin show is that working people can fight back. We have to remember the history of labor, how men and women sacrificed and died to improve how workers are treated in this country. Then comes the hard part – fighting for our rights and freedoms. The teachers and union members in Wisconsin have shown the way. Will others follow their example?
Editorial Note: On Saturdays, I will write posts under the title, “Bread and Roses – Our Heritage” that will focus on labor history. Monday through Friday, posts will continue to examine careers and related issues.
Sunday Extra Helpings:
A great website with links to labor history sites
The AFL-CIO’s Labor History Page
A Labor History Timeline from the University of Hawaii
This day in labor history
Child Labor – from the History Channel
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