Processing the Wisconsin fallout


I’m a few days behind on this one, but I’ve found it’s usually a good idea to gather one’s thoughts before blogging about something like the recent Wisconsin recall vote.

Republican Scott Walker screwed public employee unions on a false pretense, took the political heat for it, became a darling of the post-Citizens United dark money system, and survived a recall vote by a comfortable margin. What’s it mean?

The basic traditional-media response has been that public employee unions are now in decline, and they have no future, just like the rest of the labor movement. The more accurate and fact-based response has been that Wisconsin labor spent too much effort and money in the Democratic primary, and there simply weren’t enough voters who saw Walker’s actions as malfeasant enough to justify a recall in the first place, let alone actually vote for Walker’s opponents. But as with so many issues on which the traditional media refuses to perform its stated function, perception matters. And perception dictates that we discuss socioeconomic class issues in America, and how our politics are affected by them.

So the question is: do we need unions anymore?

Let’s be clear about money and class: the list of people who start life with next to nothing and become rich beyond compare is, well, short. It includes names like Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs, Buffett, their assorted colleagues, and few others. Most of us will never experience that kind of wealth (and luck), and that’s okay.

On the other hand, the list of people who start life with silver spoon in mouth, millions in their trust funds, and plenty of vacation homes and car elevators, and grow up to remain rich or grow richer, is somewhat longer. Mitt Romney started as a card-carrying member of the 1%, and remains one today. Simply put, if you start life rich, your chances of remaining rich throughout your life are pretty good regardless of how much effort you apply.

Those of us who don’t have that head start in life can do alright if we work hard. The less we start with, the more work it takes to get ahead. But it’s possible, and that possibility lies at the heart of the American Dream. But in the modern economy, it takes a herculean effort just to keep up with inflation and changes in the economy, let alone get ahead and raise one’s standard of living.

So then a new question arises: should an individual who starts with little or no head start be able to get a decent job, work hard at it, support a family, and have a decent quality of life in retirement without having to give up the things that make those efforts worthwhile or work oneself to the bone getting ahead?

The free market capitalist system is tilted against the individual who doesn’t want to be a cutthroat worshipper of the Bottom Dollar, and bent in favor of people who are willing to manipulate capital and personnel to the benefit of those with the dollars. That’s not wrong, it’s just how it is. The system can work for everyone with proper regulation, but we’re a good ways away from that state of affairs.

So then yes, we still do need unions. The fields in which we need them are changing just like the economy as a whole (less manufacturing, more service-sector positions), but in a system in which wage growth is slower than growth in the cost of living, and workers’ benefits are the first option to reduce to fix corporations’ bottom lines, and retirement benefits are the second option…collective bargaining is an absolutely critical right for workers in some fields.

And the public sector is one of those fields. These are people who are committed to serving their fellow citizens, and pass up more lucrative options in the private sector in order to do so. In return, we owe them solid benefits and decent retirement savings options. And when the corporate bosses (in this case, overzealous state legislators) try to raid those benefits and retirement funds to close budget holes, those workers need to be able to bargain collectively to protect their common fates.

The economy is changing more rapidly than our collective ability to keep up. But class issues haven’t changed much in the past two hundred years, and we need to be able to talk about them without buying into neoconservative talking points about the rich sprinkling job-creation dust on the economy and everything magically being okay for everyone, or about how simply discussing those issues makes one a socialist. That kind of rhetoric is the mark of a much more sinister political theology, one that has no place in America.