Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Lessons from Wisconsin


Today’s recall election in Wisconsin has been probably one of the most deservedly widely-watched state races for some time.  Not, as many commentators have been suggesting, because it is necessarily particularly indicative of anything that is going to happen during November’s general election, but because of what it tells us about the way in which the public views labour rights, and the power of money.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was elected in 2010 and decided that basically nullifying public sector employees’ labour rights would be the best way to close the state’s deficit.  I understand that many businesses have a short-term interest in being able to treat their employees like casual labour, but how this argument—that taking away the rights of some people (when those rights have already been taken away from private sector workers) and cutting their pay and pensions will make everyone else better off—has caught on, I truly don’t understand.

One might think that all the evidence showing that unionisation raises not only the wages of unionised workers, but also helps to create a floor for the workforce as a whole, might prove persuasive.  One might have thought that the benefits that have accrued to the labour force as a direct result of unionisation—the eight-hour day, the 40-hour week, paid vacation, health insurance, workman’s compensation, the basic right to air grievances and protection from arbitrary dismissal, and so on—would make people stop and think before they bayed for the blood of unionised workers.  One might even have believed that, seeing the security that labour rights have brought to one group of people, their fellow citizens might have decided that they wanted access to some of these same rights. 

I expect that Scott Walker will not be recalled, partly because too many workers in Wisconsin seem eager to punish their compatriots rather than demand rights of their own.  It helps that Walker’s campaign has outspent the recall effort several times over, and that turnout might not be particularly high.

But what is every bit as galling as the probable blow to people’s rights that Walker will be striking in Wisconsin are the conclusions that some people will persist in drawing from Wisconsin’s experience.  I got a foretaste of this in a 1 June story in the OC Register, wherein columnist Brian Calle enjoined readers, presumably with a straight face, to “compare Walker with California Gov. Jerry Brown—and contrast Wisconsin’s progress since Walker enacted his union-bucking policies with California’s continued decline under Brown’s union-friendly leadership, and you see two different outcomes”.

When I read analysis of this sort, my first thought is to question whether Calle is being deliberately disingenuous, or whether the journalist actually is so unable to generate the most elementary chain of logic, or actually has so feeble an understanding of California’s political structure, that he is capable of genuinely believing such a thing.

Firstly, let’s examine what Jerry Brown is capable of doing.  Goodness knows I’m no fan of the Governor, but in California, the chief executive needs the backing of a legislative majority (and often a supermajority) to pass legislation.  Democrats are unlikely to back an unhinged assault on labour rights, so that’s the end of that scenario.  They are also unlikely to cut taxes with an eye to further eviscerating our schools and universities, so Brown wouldn’t have so much luck there, either. 

Now it’s important to bear in mind, however much Calle might disagree, that cutting citizens’ services and stripping them of their rights is not the only way of getting out of a budget deficit.  We all know that Walker’s too much a fanatic to let the idea of freedom-stealing, oppressive, socialist, fascist, liberal taxes to flit across his narrow mind, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, he decided to close the deficit by raising taxes.  In Wisconsin (correct me if I’m wrong), he could presumably get the backing of 50% of legislators and enact this program.  In other words, the Wisconsin governor has choices.

Now Jerry Brown took a leaf out of the Norquist book and pledged not to raise taxes without putting the question to a vote of the people.  But just say he’d shown some uncharacteristic spine and decided to attempt to raise taxes to close California’s deficit.  In the absence of Republican support, although his party controls 62-65% of the Assembly and Senate, he couldn’t have done so.  California’s real deficit is a democratic one, and not a financial one.  Our politics are paralysed by structural dysfunction, and Brown’s inability to address the deficit in a satisfactory manner has nothing to do with what Calle vapidly refers to as the “stranglehold that public employee unions have in the state”.  The only stranglehold is the one woven by voters through a series of misplaced initiatives and conflicting demands.  Neither the democratic nor the financial deficit will be closed until people like Calle—and California’s voters—start thinking seriously about our state’s political structure instead of reciting stupid homilies. 

Calle’s stock phrase, the “stranglehold”, shows one manner in which many Republicans totally misunderstand labour.  I think that most of us who would seek to defend collective bargaining do not see it about the reckless aggrandisement of political power.  Rather, it is about assuring that working people—in a social, political, and economic environment saturated by money—have a voice in determining their working conditions and wage.  It is about rights.

It is not about egregious instances of public sector workers with particular benefits—not for proponents of labour rights, and not for Scott Walker.  Because if it was about the specifics, Walker would have engaged in the bargaining process, or sought to address particular instances where he saw abuse in the system.  Instead, backed by some of the filthiest money in politics, he launched an all out assault on what should be a fundamental right of working people—to pool their interests in an effort to assure themselves a decent standard of living and a decent quality of life.  Those are rights which should be elementary and unquestioned, and they are rights which we should be expanding outside the public sector rather than assaulting them within it.

Calle wrote, “Early in his first administration, Brown signed the Rodda Act in 1975, which bestowed collective bargaining rights on California’s public school teachers”.  Calle means this as a criticism.  But I don’t see why anyone deserves anything other than praise for enabling more people to take a measure of control over their circumstances.  Most of us are brought up having been enjoined to stick together and help one another out.  To pool our resources when someone we know needs help—whether a neighbour, a friend, or a family-member.  That’s what labour rights and collective bargaining are about.  We can debate the specifics of individual instances of bargaining, but we should be ashamed of ourselves for trying to erode already terribly-battered rights.

Some advice to Calle: go back to high school and pick up a civics textbook.

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