Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Collective Bargaining

Before we begin, and I start to type things that make people cranky, let me just say that my heart lies with the public workers' unions in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and throughout the Midwest that suddenly find themselves under siege, thanks to a Republican declaration of war on labor unions everywhere.

I come from a pro-union family. I have watched one parent walk a picket line (three times) and watched another drive miles out of her way because she refused to cross one. I still benefit from the good things that unions have done for artists in the entertainment industry.  My mother -- the "Social Democrat" (she'd have called herself a socialist, had she not come of age smack in the midst of the McCarthy era) had countless stories of how labor unions improved the lives of the middle class and working poor, and how -- in spite of some pretty shady goings on in the 60s and 70s -- they must not be allowed to be demolished.

Suffice it say, I'm a union-loving, left-leaning liberal who believes that the Little Guy stands up so much better against Big Daddy when he can band together with 20,000 of his fellow Little Guys. The right to negotiate and bargain contracts collectively, and to strike when management refuses to keep its side of the deal, is what keeps unions strong. And no one knows better how to take care of its people, how to make the workplace safer and happier, how to keep workers productive and healthy, then union negotiators, because most of them came from shop floors, squad cars and classrooms.

Does that mean unions are perfect? No. Hell no. Pensions have been stolen, lost or strayed, some employment protections have allowed substandard workers to maintain their positions without fear of dismissal, and occasionally, strikes have been called out of sheer political maneuvering between union heads and corporate or political bigwigs, throwing workers into turmoil for the sake of a proverbial pissing contest.  It happens.  But unions have established safer, healthier workplaces, provided pensions that have inoculated retired factory workers, teachers and public servants against poverty in old age, and have put an end to child labor -- something that was commonplace in this country as recently as two generations ago.

Now... on to Wisconsin... where I think what is happening to those public workers -- teachers, city maintenance workers, prison guards, etc -- is beyond appalling. Governor Scott Walker (whom I discovered while researching this post, had the audacity to actually be born on my ninth birthday) campaigned in 2010 on a platform of tax cuts for the wealthy and wage and benefit cuts for public workers (among other things).  He promised to create 250,000 jobs, only to turn down a federal grant to build a high-speed rail system from Madison to Milwaukee because he said that it would cost more than the 50,000 jobs it would have ultimately created was worth.

Governor Walker campaigned on creating jobs, yet in his entire history as a politician, never once voted for legislation or tried to create legislation that did so.  In his career as a state legislator, he consistently voted the straight, hard-line Republican ticket that included tax cuts for the super-wealthy and large corporations, and the reduction of benefits and programs to the middle class and working poor.  I found this out by doing some simple, 15-minute research on the Inter-webs. Walker has been nothing if not consistent in his career.  But he talked about Obama-care and how providing folks with health insurance would break the back of our fine nation.  He made people think of an America from the 50s that seemed so much more than the mess we're living in now.  He talked about job creation, but his first act was to turn down a government grant that would have created them, while putting little money in the pockets of his fellow country club members and golf buddies. He wooed people with talk about "family values" and "traditional marriage" and all those things that make America great and strong.  (Translation: we hate gay people.)

Here's my point. Governor Scott Walker won by 54% of the vote.  He didn't squeak through. There were no recounts or calls for Supreme Court intervention.  No.  He won by a healthy margin.

This means that a lot of those people who were sleeping on the floor of the Capitol Building in Madison in March were checking the box by his name the previous November. People voted for Walker, who got into office and proceeded to do everything he said he would do -- take salary and benefits away from the "overpaid" public workers in order to save Wisconsin.  But here's the thing.  I'm betting every one of those people was sure that Walker would take away some OTHER public workers' benefits and salaries.  And this is what I expect to see happening nationwide, now that we've given the Tea Party an actual voice in our politics.  See, y'all voted Tea Party, thinking that everyone else's jobs/entitlements/benefits, etc. would be taken away, thereby preserving yours.

That's not how it works, my little lumpkins.  They might go for theirs first, but they're coming for yours next thing.  And this why representative government is really, really hard.  It requires that you know a little something about something.  It requires that you learn what you do not know.  It requires that you set aside your petty fears and prejudices and think with a bigger, more expansive mind.  As much as your Tea Party heroes would like you to believe that the Constitution was crafted by simple men with simple religious beliefs and simple ideas, they lie.

The Constitution was crafted by geniuses -- wildly intelligent, creative outliers who felt that education, knowledge, investigation, experimentation and innovation were keystones to a strong, growing nation.  Though many of them inherited their wealth, they didn't just sit around and rest on their fortunes. They multiplied them with inventiveness and ambition (and, yes, slavery, too). They were musicians and poets and inventors and humorists and scholars.  They were renaissance men, many of whom had limited formal education (as we would think of it), but who were curious and industrious autodidacts.  Maintaining the republic they formed requires a similar and equally ambitious due diligence.

If you think that just watching network news and occasionally skimming Yahoo or CNN online is going to be sufficient to make an informed decision about your government leaders, you're a fool.  If the people of Wisconsin who elected Walker governor, only to realize that the public worker unions he intended to gouge were theirs, thought that voting out of a fear of Socialism was going to get them the best leader possible, they are fools.  Or were.  I'm guessing they're a lot more enlightened now, at a very, very high cost to their own futures and that of their families.

Remember Wisconsin.  Because on a national level, they're coming after your Social Security and your Medicare, and a bunch of those angry white folks holding Tea Party signs and wearing silly tea bag hats are recipients who never for an instant thought that the Tea Party would be coming after them -- though the Tea Party said quite clearly, "We're going after Social Security and Medicare."  If you think Madison was bad, wait until you see Washington D.C.  If you think people were angry about losing their collective bargaining power, wait until you see what happens when they learn their monthly checks are being cut and their Medicare deductibles doubled.  Because that is what's next on the agenda, I assure.  I know this because the Republicans have told me so.  Over and over.  And I've listened.

This is what awaits us, folks.  Vote stupid, if you must. Vote angry, if you will.  But don't be surprised if, after you've done so, you're the one who gets bit in the butt by your stupid decisions.

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