OPINION | Let’s make the poor pay


Execute true justice; deal kindly and compassionately with one another. Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor. – Zechariah 7:8-10 (from The Hebrew Prophets, translation and annotation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro)

We are witnessing a right-wing ideological assault on the working class and labor unions that is unprecedented in United States history.

The uprising to the east, in Madison, Wisc. (and in other Midwest capitals), is a harbinger of the 2011 Minnesota Legislature’s emerging shipwreck, where Republicans are proposing draconian spending cuts to patch a $5 billion budget deficit over the coming two years; Gov. Mark Dayton is standing by his proposal to trim spending and increase taxes on the wealthiest Minnesota families.

Tilting the playing field from social equity to laissez-faire economics is playing out in odd ways across the U.S. In Maine, for example, Gov. Paul LePage has ordered the removal of a 36-foot mural in the Department of Labor building in Augusta depicting the state’s labor history.

“Among other things the mural illustrates the 1937 shoe mill strike in Auburn and Lewiston,” writes Robert Reich, former Labor secretary in the Clinton administration. “It also features the iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ who in real life worked at the Bath Iron Works. One panel shows my predecessor at the U.S. Department of Labor, Frances Perkins, who was buried in Newcastle, Maine.”

The LePage Administration, adds Reich, is also “renaming conference rooms that had carried the names of historic leaders of American labor, as well as former Secretary Perkins. The governor’s spokesman explains that the mural and the conference room names were ‘not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals.'”

So, Reich poses the question on the minds of many: “Are we still in America?”

He adds, “Frances Perkins was the first woman cabinet member in American history. She was also one of the most accomplished cabinet members in history.”

In the ostensible pursuit of balancing the budget, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican lawmakers have rescinded collective bargaining rights for most public employees. There seems to be some dispute about the status of the law, in view of a court injunction halting its implementation.

Hyman Berman, University of Minnesota emeritus professor of history and an observer of state politics over many decades, told the Jewish World this week that what we are witnessing in political action is the “ideology of privatization, which has become the lodestone of the right – those who want to do away with most of the gains that were made since the New Deal in the area of social legislation.”

The right-wing juggernaut has two prongs, according to Berman. There are the “economic forces that are looking for the end of any kind of interference in entrepreneurial liberty, thus allow corporations freedom to do what they please… do away with regulations, do away with taxes – the Chamber of Commerce approach.”

The other tendency is manifested by “the social conservatives, who are so fearful of the changes that have taken place in our culture and society over the last 40 years,” and seek to reverse the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion, and many other social reforms, according to Berman.

“You have this combination of the economic conservatives and the social conservatives wanting to do away with all of the reform regulations that have been imposed, as they feel, upon the American people since the New Deal,” Berman explains.

Our local historian mentions that labor union membership in the private sector – 6.9 percent of workers (a figure lower than it was in 1929, when the Wagner Act mandated that employers allow workers to organize and negotiate) – is “already dead.” The current political attack is focused on “public sector unionism – 37 percent of public employees are organized.”

Of course, labor unions are an important organizing and financial pillar of the Democratic Party, so the effort to abrogate the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions, in order to greatly diminish their power, should be seen as the political ploy that it is, in the year before the 2012 elections. Gov. Walker admitted as much when he was talking on the phone several weeks ago to a blogger impersonating David Koch, the conservative oil billionaire and backer of the Tea Party movement.

Some observers have pointed out that teachers, social workers, police officers and firefighters were not the ones responsible for issuing subprime mortgages to package into the toxic securities that wrecked the banks and brought down the global economic system. However, by the lights of some elected leaders, working people should bear the primary responsibility for remediating this mess.

The March 4 editorial in the AJW sketched some of the effects of Gov. Dayton’s proposed budget cuts as they would affect Jewish social service agencies, most notably Sholom Community Alliance. The pending vague Republican budget proposal would cut deeper in this area, and create profound hardship in our community and in the dominant society. DFLers and Republicans at the Capitol are at loggerheads; there is the looming threat of a government shutdown.

Ultimately, a compromise will be negotiated; and we hope that the governor will stick to his promise of increasing revenues through an equitable taxation proposal. The budget cannot be balanced on the backs of working class and middle class families that are already strapped.