Like other commentators on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to destroy the hard-won collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions, The LA Times’ Mark Barabak missed the point when he wrote that the stakes were nothing less than “the practice of politics in this country, with enormous consequences in 2012 and beyond”.
It is true, as Barabak writes, that the Democratic Party would be much the weaker without financial and grassroots support from unions. But what is really at stake are the rights of workers and the meaning of democracy. A long history of anti-labour politics in the U.S. has already weakened the ability of workers to make demands on governments, something that over the long term has led to the ascendancy of corporate power (think of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which puts corporate rights on a par with those of citizens, and equates corporate money with free speech).
Walker’s bill is a further attempt to wrest the ability to even participate meaningfully in politics away from workers (whether private or public sector, given the emasculation of the former). Because although voting is important, today’s money-infused elections make it difficult for voters to separate the wheat from the chaff. And the Republican Party’s message machine, backed by a huge influx of corporate cash, has been especially skilful at ensuring that blatant fearmongering, misrepresentation and even outright lies filter the information that trickles down to the public.
It is therefore important that labour, whether private or public sector, retains the ability to stick up for itself—because politicians who are bombarded by cash from interests who would like nothing better than to eliminate unions are certainly not going to stick up for workers of their own accord. Unions should be able to strike not only for better wages (the one bone that Walker would leave in place on the carcass of organised labour by the time his corporate hyaenas are through with it), but for workplace safety, in solidarity with other unions, in defence of their members’ pension and healthcare plans, and in protest of corporate abuse.
Walker persists in lying to the public when he argues that his concern is solely for Wisconsin’s budget...that this is why he needs to erode collective bargaining rights. This is patently untrue, because unions have acquiesced to demands that their health plans and retirements be cut. Barabak also points out that Walker is lying when he claims to have warned Wisconsinites that his assault on labour was coming (he never mentioned his plans during the election cycle that led to his victory in November).
Barabak quotes “Phil Musser, a GOP consultant and former director of the Republican Governors Association” as saying “’You have [government workers] essentially enjoying an outmoded set of benefits that have no bearing on the macroeconomic situation, either in the states or nationally’”.
This is a shocking statement. But it reaffirms the commitment of the GOP at large (because Walker’s success would encourage the party to take similar action in other states or even at the federal level) to bringing the rights and standards of public sector workers down to the level of those who have already been denied labour rights. The logical thing to do in difficult economic times would be to ensure that all workers have strong and secure pension and health plans that would protect their welfare. It would make sense to keep collective bargaining rights in the hands of both public and private sector workers, to ensure that the comparatively more vulnerable among us (because let’s be clear, the people on the other side are the wealthy who have been bailed out by the federal government time and again) have democratic rights in keeping with their numbers and their contributions to the creation of wealth in our country.
And their benefits have every bearing on the macroeconomic situation. Unions were in a difficult situation, and so it is understandable that they were willing to agree to Walker’s cuts to their retirements and healthcare. But the fact of the matter is, working class people should not have to give up a dime of their pay checks, retirements or health benefits until tax breaks for the wealthy are repealed, until corporate loopholes are slammed shut, and until every effort to equitably redistribute the pain of the recession that was caused by a corrupt financial sector has been made.
Because the potential outcome of the fight in Wisconsin has the potential to be oh so much more than a transformation of politics in the party-political vein that many commentators have suggested. It could herald the transformation of our rights to participate meaningfully in politics, the right to make our voices heard, and the right to argue about the necessity of equality and socioeconomic justice.
What we will see, should Walker triumph is a move—by way of a return to trickle-down-economics—toward trickle-down-democracy.