The Republican governor of Wisconsin wants to use the state's budget crisis to break the teacher's and public employee's unions. 40 other states are watching to see if he gets away with it. If he is successful, it will be a victory in a war against working- class Americans that started in the early 20th Century. This last battle started with Ronald Reagan, and will be finished by regressives in state houses and in Congress. Under the guise of a fiscal emergency, Wisconsin's governor has proposed eliminating the ability of teachers and state workers to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. Without the ability to collectively bargain, unions cease to have a function. Without collective bargaining, employers can play groups off against each other, pick off weaker employees and prevent workers from banding together to demand a fair wage, decent working conditions, health care and some kind of provision to provide for them when they can no longer work.
In the late 50's and early 60's, when America was at its economic zenith, union membership was close to 40% of the American work force. American workers earned enough to create the largest middle class in the world. Unions proved Marx was wrong when he said there had to be a war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. He said capitalism would create great wealth but the capitalists would never share that wealth with the workers. Unions forced the capitalists to share some of their profits through the use of collective bargaining. The entire work force has more bargaining power than any individual. As unions fought for 40-hour workweeks and higher wages and better working conditions as well as pensions and health care, even non-union workers saw their boats rise with the tide. Putting money in worker's pockets created consumers and those consumers became 2/3 of the economic activity of this nation. The capitalists hated it. They hated having to bargain. They hated not being able to impose their will. They hated bending to demands and they fought and were willing to kill to prevent it from happening. When Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation allowing for collective bargaining, corporate America increased their political contributions at the fastest rate in history in order to defeat him in 1936. That record will be broken in 2012 when corporate America attempts to retake the Senate and the White House. They really don’t like to share.
The campaign against workers and unions has been so successful, working Americans are willing to turn on each other in a death spiral of eroding earnings, hazardous working conditions (can anyone say Deep Water Horizon or the Upper Branch Mine?) and gutted pension systems. While the richest Americans enjoy tax rates not seen since 1950, while the richest 1% see their taxes cut, working Americans tax burden continues to rise and the money pays for less and less in terms of government services and aid. In Madison, Wisconsin average Americans turned out to attack teachers and state workers who were protesting the loss of their bargaining rights. In the 1920's, corporations paid private cops and local thugs to break up labor rallies and stop the move towards workers rights. Today, so many Americans have swallowed the corporatist's kool aid; they are willing to attack other workers fighting to preserve the few bargaining chips they have left.
Their is a belief in this country our fiscal woes are the result of greedy, ungrateful workers. As we watched trillions of dollars transferred from Main Street to Wall Street, as we watched the bonuses and salaries being paid at Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and even AIG, as American's had more homes foreclosed in 2010 than any time in history, there is this myth, which has taken root, we are in economic trouble because of the unreasonable demands of workers. Wall Street is back to pre-depression highs, corporate profits are soaring, corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars in "cash" and yet unemployment sits at 9%. Why should they hire someone when they are making so much money as things are now? Even as the protests continue in Wisconsin, the US Chamber of Commerce is pushing Obama and Congress to approve new free trade pacts with Columbia, Panama and South Korea. Even as more jobs are taken overseas and America's manufacturing base withers and dies, corporate America fights to preserve tax breaks they get by keeping profits offshore and push for new agreements to take more jobs from Americans. They are even pushing the president to cut the corporate tax rate. Even as the rich and powerful pour hundreds of millions into regressive campaign coffers, they seek to dilute and eliminate the one counterweight to their greed and rapaciousness.
The governor of Wisconsin talks of the need for "shared sacrifice" even as he and his fellow Republicans refuse to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1%. They rule out any additional taxes on corporations. They refuse to invest in the country's infrastructure and ignore the jobs that would be created. "Shared sacrifice" is a code word for continued attacks on unions and continued erosion of the working middle class. Regressives excoriated Obama for propping up General Motors and Chrysler. They didn't care about the hundreds of thousands of jobs they represented; a decision that has paid huge dividends for both companies, returned taxpayers money with interest and added 56,000 jobs in the industry. They wanted to share in government largesse but the workers would do the sacrificing.
Will public employees have to accept pay cuts and layoffs? Yes. Will they have to contribute more to their pension plans? Probably. Will they have to pay more for health care? Not if we had a single payer health care system not dependant on individual states as employers. Since we don’t, the answer is yes they will pay more. Should they be able to collectively bargain to make the best deal, to protect the most vulnerable, to make sure the sacrifice is shared not dumped on their backs? Absolutely. Taking away collective bargaining is only necessary if you want to bust the unions. It is not necessary to get workers to make the sacrifices we all know need to be made to get our fiscal house in order.
It is no coincidence as union membership declined, the gap between the rich and working Americans widened. It is no accident as workers turned on each other, the richest 1% increased control over at least 60% of the wealth in this nation. It is not happenstance Wall Street was bailed out, while workers had to fight for help for companies like General Motors and it is not bad luck a government program aimed at helping Americans stay in their homes is called a failure and faces cancelation while corporate America is reporting earnings not reached since 2006-2007. If we want a healthy, vibrant and strong America, we have to have a healthy, vibrant and strong middle class and collective bargaining aids in that goal. That's why regressives hate it and unions so much. What do you think?