19 February 2011

Change the Subject: Wisconsin & Framing the Debate About Public Sector Unions

I listened to this report on npr this morning. And I've been reading about the events in Wisconsin and elsewhere here and here and here. I have to say that the Democratic assembly representatives are doing just the right thing. They have shown more gumption than the Obama administration has done over the past two years!

There are a couple of issues that are disturbing about the way things are transpiring. Let's talk about secondary matters. First, the Wisconsin governor is clearly trying to force de-unionization on the workers by demanding not just sharing the costs of financial hardship, but by seeking to so constrain the scope of collective bargaining as to make the union irrelevant. Second, the Governor exempted unions representing police, fire and other emergency responders. Guess what? Those were unions that supported his electoral campaign. If this were Indonesia we'd describe that as corruption. Here we call it Republican governance. Finally, the fiscal crisis in the states is being cause in the first instance by venality in the public sector and government incompetence and malfeasance at the federal level. So the demands being placed on public sector employees and recipients of state-level aid are completely misplaced.

What is even more troubling is the rhetoric surrounding the uprising in Wisconsin: it generally runs like this: "Public sector unions should shut up and quit whining. After all, they are 'just' being asked to kick in for health benefits and pensions. In other words, they are being asked to share the pain." It is easy enough to reply by making a couple of points. (1) Well, the workers already (last year) agreed to concessions. And (2) the workers are outraged (rightfully) over the Governor's attempt to undermine their right to bargain collectively.

Even those points are off the mark. The problem here is not that public sector unions are spoiled. It is that private sector workers are deprived. They by and large lack unions and so are now and have been getting hammered economically. How do you think we got the massive, decades long shift in income and wealth to the already rich? Why is it that so many private sector workers have low paying, no benefit jobs? Why is it that all that has happened despite rising productivity in the U.S.? The short answer is no unions. And that is what progressives ought to be pushing in response to the way events are being framed.

What progressives ought to be saying is this: "If the Republicans manage to undermine public sector unions, then the downward pressure on wages and benefits will increase across the economy. All you folks in the private sector will bear the consequences too and those consequences will be negative, for you and your families." Call for solidarity, point out the divide and conquer strategy of the right.

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