The Wisconsin Thing ~ Another Nail in the Coffin of Democracy and the Middle-Class

Benjamin Franklin famously responded to a question about what form of government the United States would have under the newly ratified Constitution saying, “We have a republic as long as we can keep it.”

February 22, 2011 — The Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, won the November 2010 election by six (6) percentage points over his Democratic challenger, Tom Barnett.  Pretty impressive, right? But does six percentage points translate to a mandate for social change on the magnitude taking place in Wisconsin this week? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_gubernatorial_election,_2010.

Hmmmm… It seems to me that the governor of Wisconsin is the governor for all citizens of Wisconsin, even those folks who voted for Mr. Barnett. Notwithstanding, our representative form of democracy means that the governor will have his way on this public workers’ union business regardless of what the average Wisconsin voter may think about it. This is because the Republican Party also controls the state’s legislature, by a large margin in the State Assembly http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_State_Assembly, and by lesser numbers in the Senate http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_Senate. But would the majority of Wisconsins really support this move if they knew all the facts? I wonder, but we’ll likely never know; the only poll on the question I’ve seen so far suggests bias in the way the question is being asked http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/rasmussen-poll-on-wisconsin-dispute-may-be-biased/.

Just because a person votes Republican doesn’t mean that they necessarily believe workers should not have the right to negotiate collectively for pay and working conditions.

Wisconsin is indeed facing a budget crunch, although its difficulties are less severe than those facing many other states. Revenue has fallen in the face of a weak economy, while stimulus funds, which helped close the gap in 2009 and 2010, have faded away. In this situation, it makes sense to call for shared sacrifice, including monetary concessions from state workers. Accordingly, union leaders have signaled that they are, in fact, willing to make such concessions http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/22/wisconsin-budget-battle-c_n_826478.html. But the governor isn’t interested in making a deal. This is partly because he doesn’t want other government workers, those who are more supportive of him and of Republican principles to have to share in the sacrifice, or so I’ve been given to understand from my reading on the subject http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/opinion/21krugman.html?_r=2.

Even though Wisconsin is facing a terrible fiscal crisis, the governor has been pushing through tax cuts that make the deficit even worse. The bottom line, I think, is that he wants to end workers’ ability to bargain collectively and is therefore refusing to negotiate. Hey – why negotiate when you’re holding all the cards, right?

But why bust the unions when you can balance your budget in other ways? It’s really not helping Wisconsin deal with its current fiscal crisis. Nor is it likely to help the state’s budget prospects in the long run. Contrary to what you may think, public-sector workers in Wisconsin and everywhere else this country are paid less than what private-sector workers with comparable qualifications are paid http://www.businessinsider.com/wisconsin-public-sector-wages-2011-2. So it’s not about the budget; it’s about power.

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, however, some of us are more equal than others: Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues, and; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers have done in the case of Governor Walker) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/us/22koch.html.

On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation. In reality, we’re more like an oligarchy, a situation in which a handful of wealthy people dominate. And, although some define it differently, when business controls the state, this is called fascism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitions_of_fascism. The more power wealthy business interests gain, the less power individual citizens retain.

Benjamin Franklin famously responded to a question about what form of government the United States would have under the newly ratified Constitution saying, “We have a republic as long as we can keep it.” Well, it is my belief that we are perilously close to losing it, if we have not in fact already lost it.

One does not have to love unions or believe that their policy positions are always right to recognize that they are among the few influential players in our political system that represent the interests of the middle-class. A retired teacher now myself, I have never believed in tenure for teachers. But I have always believed that workers should have the right to collectively bargain for wages and work conditions if that is what they want.

Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic with a shrinking middle-class over the last 70 years — which it has http://finance.yahoo.com/tech-ticker/the-u.s.-middle-class-is-being-wiped-out-here’s-the-stats-to-prove-it-520657.html?tickers=%5EDJI,%5EGSPC,SPY,MCD,WMT,XRT,DIA — this is largely true because of the increasing influence the wealthy few have on government and the decline of unions since passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_busting.

The injustice I perceive in all of this is exacerbated by the fact that Wisconsin’s fiscal crisis, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. It was, after all, the super wealthy and most influential players in the game, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation. This set the stage and tumbled the economic building blocks that became the Great Recession of 2008-9, a recession whose aftermath is the main reason for current budget crunches in so many states. Now this oligarchy is pushing the political right to exploit that very crisis. Except for the fact that there is no humor to be found in it, I would call this whole situation ironic.

I invite you comments, whether you agree with me or not.

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Published in: on February 22, 2011 at 11:53 am  Comments (6)  

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  1. 2/22/2011

    Opa,

    An interesting blog. I don’t know enough details about the Wisconsin-specific situation to question or challenge what you’ve provided here; I’ve been trying to pay a little more attention to our situation here in Texas. I will offer three thoughts, though.

    With regard to your thought that the Wisconsin governor wants to end state worker’s ability to bargain collectively, you said “Hey – why negotiate when you’re holding all the cards, right?” Seems to me the democrats in our Congress last year, as well as the President, took the same position with health care reform, passing it without a single Republican vote. Now, at least maybe in the Wisconsin situation, the shoe is on the other foot and progressives/democrats don’t like it. What goes around, comes around.

    I also believe that the democrat state senators in Wisconsin are blowing whatever credibility they have with their citizens when they scoot across state lines because things aren’t going their way. Some might even call it cowardice. The same thing happened in Texas a few years back – made us the laughing stock of the nation for awhile.

    Your blog also mentions voting, the election of the Republican governor in Wisconsin, not everyone who voted Republican may be in favor of eliminating collective bargaining for state workers, etc. So, I would pose this question to you. Why did the unions (whichever ones they were) try to press the “card-check” issue through Congress, which would eliminate secret balloting by employees when voting on whether or not to accept union representation? Everywhere else in our country, all binding votes are by secret ballot – why did the unions feel this was no longer viable for them? Maybe there could be some hoped-for “mild” intimidation (on the part of the unions) that if employee’s votes were known to all, that some employees might vote for union representation when they really didn’t want/need it, merely to avoid pressure from fellow employees or union organizers? Thank goodness this legislative initiative failed in the Congress, but it does tell me something about what the unions are thinking about their reduced impact on the workforce.

  2. Dear OPA,
    As a 30 year Union member, I think the state unions have gone wildly out of control. When a state worker is earning more salary and receiving more benefits than comparably qualified private sector employees, then something is radically wrong. Why? Because “The State” produces nothing that adds to the GDP of the country. Explained another way, “The State” is an EXPENSE or “Cost Center” and does nothing to add to the wealth of the USA.

    I think it is time the American “sheeple” woke up to reality and started to demand smaller government and lower taxes to help us become more competitive in the global marketplace. And a good part of that means cutting back on the size of government and all government entitlements.

    Whether we like it or not, the USA is in fact, bankrupt (were it not for the printing presses) and unless we make significant changes to bring our expenses under control, within 10 years, we will all be speaking Mandarin- as a FIRST LANGUAGE. And China can take over the USA without firing a shot…. All they have to do is foreclose on the debt they hold….

    It is the “ruling elite” in a corrupt and unholy alliance with “big business” that has created this mess and we need to hold BOTH accountable.

    BR,
    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

  3. It is a conservative myth that Republicans had no input to the healthcare bill that finally made it to the president’s desk. True, no Republicans voted for it, not that some might have been willing to out of conscience but for party tactics. But there were 160 Republican amendments contained in the Senate bill http://www.slate.com/id/2223023/. Yes, many of these were termed “technical” by Republican leaders, submitted merely to slow down the process. But Democrats truly wanted the new law to be a bi-partisan effort. That it wasn’t was due purely to politics from the rights side of the aisle.

    Yes, it bothered me too when it happened that Democrats in the Texas legislature skipped out of state over the redistricting thing here in 2003. But they knew that they had no option other than to delay passage perchance that public opinion might grow sufficiently to sway some of their colleges’ votes. Recall that the measure was highly controversial in that it lacked president (redistricting more than once in a decade between censuses). Had the Supreme Court not been so conservative, I’m quite sure it would have been struck down. Perhaps the move by Democrats in Wisconsin is purely a protest move in sympathy with labor demonstrations.

    Although a Red Herring http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/red-herring.html argument with respect to the Wisconsin thing, your point about the “card-check” issue is well-taken. Though it may have been proposed with good intentions to help workers unionize, people should be able to vote however they want and, in this country, their votes are their own business http://www.uschamber.com/issues/labor/employee-free-choice-act-card-check-bill. As I said in my posting, I do not think that every union policy or position is necessarily right.

  4. You are wrong, sir, on more than a couple of points. First, public-sector workers earn less than their private-sector counterparts with comparable education http://www.ehow.com/about_5419087_government-vs-private-sector-jobs.html. True, unionized workers, across the board, do make more than non-union workers. But, to be competitive with the Chinese in things like manufacturing, would you have American workers’ wages reduced to that of the average Chinese worker? That’s just crazy!

    Government does more for us than just waste taxpayers’ dollars. It protects us, and not just from foreign invasion. It protects us from exploitation. It protects us from criminals and disasters, natural and otherwise. It educates us. It provides us with justice. Now, while we may not be able to adequately measure the value of these things in dollars and cents, their net worth in the overall scheme of things is not something that this taxpayer is ready to sacrifice to the holy grail of profit.

    Government’s contribution is factored into GDP calculations (GDP=C+G+In)! On average, government spending (governments do buy stuff too) accounts for more than 20 percent of GDP in the U.S. It generates demand. On top of that, every dollar spent, whether by the private sector, the business sector, or the government sector, becomes somebody else’s income. It is spending that drives the economy.

    We can agree on something though. It is the “ruling elite (read wealthy),” in alliance with “big business,” that has created the mess we find ourselves in today.

  5. Opa,
    I am directed to your blog through tracking back on an automatic referral of related articles from your blog to mine. I am pleased to have found your site because I appreciate your personal testimony of your faith and your ministry such as teaching and the Stephen’s ministry.
    At a quick read of your posts, I can find agreements and disagreements. Perhaps it is unlikely for us to change our positions since yours do not come lightly without careful considerations. But we can certainly share our different viewpoints, as you invited.

    “Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues, and; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views ( as the Koch brothers )” The same or stronger influence can be said about the liberal left such as Soros supported Progressive think tanks, and definitely the union leaders who finance their drives of political influence by taking mandatory dues from workers, and wielding their power over elected officials.
    The economic concern is largely on unfunded generous retirements. The deficit has been building up, and will continue to. For now, whether the WI bill passed or not, ordinary citizens may not see any difference, but the ever increasing deficit will eventually bankrupt the state if nothing is done. Without the removal of collective bargaining on benefits ( not on wages), the hands of the state are tied from plugging this hole.
    Hey, if the state gets back on track, economy flourishes, state coffer has plenty of surplus, we should then talk about revamping benefits.
    Teaching us to live within our means isn’t a mean thing.
    I have a few postings about union power.
    http:pnclaw.wordpress.com

  6. Sir, as a retired teacher, I have a strong bias in favor of our kids and our nation’s future. So, you will hopefully forgive my passion in this response.
    Our kids deserve nothing but the best, yet we increasingly ask teachers to do more with less and for less. Teachers’ salaries are much lower than comparably prepared workers in the private sector. In fact, generous retirement programs are and have been one of the few incentives for recruitment and retention of quality educators. Now Wisconsin won’t have this incentive. Therefore, the pool of quality new teachers will be diminished and the good ones already in the classroom will be jumping ship early.
    Some states’ school districts, like here in Texas, only contribute to state-sponsored retirement systems; contributions to Social Security are not made. So, the only income teachers have to look forward to in retirement come from teachers’ retirement system annuities accumulated over time. Teachers don’t make enough to support their families comfortably let alone enough put much away in IRAs. So, we can’t have it both ways, can we? We cannot have improvements in educational achievements sufficient to compete with other economies’ future workers and reduced state budgets too. Accordingly, it makes no sense to cut both taxes for those who can afford to pay more and expenditures for educators’ compensation. There are better places within states’ education budgets to reduce spending than from teachers’ compensation.


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