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Lisa Wexler Headshot

Admit It, You'd Like to Be in a Union Too

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This week's victory by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in which he fought back an effort to recall him proved only one thing: union supporters made a terrible tactical mistake. They went after the man instead of the message. By attacking Scott Walker personally, instead of attacking his view on collective bargaining and Union rights, pro-union forces dealt themselves a devastating setback. This is terrible news for all of us who care about the single most important issue of our time -- the disappearing middle class. Unions are essential to enlarging and sustaining that middle class. Without Unions, all of us are poorer.

Blaming unions for all the trouble we are in has become cool. We hear that public sector employees have juicy benefits, great health care coverage, guaranteed pensions. In some cases, the average public sector worker earns twice what the average private sector worker earns. We are envious -- hey, we want that too! That's not fair!

You are right -- it's not fair. But don't blame the unions for doing their job, ensuring that thousands of people are able to afford retirement, pay their doctors and work in decent, sanitary conditions. Those people buy the houses you sell them, take their clothes to your dry cleaners, support your hardware store, clothing store and bank. The problem is not that union workers earn too much, it's that the rest of us are earning too little.

Look at the facts and see what's really not fair. Right now, the top 1 percent of the wealthy own 42 percent of the nation's wealth. And a staggering 80 percent of the rest of us only control 7 percent of the nation's property! The share of the middle class pie has shrunk to negligible proportions, with huge consequences for the future of America. Are the unions responsible for the greediness of the upper class? Absolutely not. In fact, they stood as one of the only bulwarks against it.

In the 1950s, 40 percent of this country either worked in a union shop or were dependent on a union for income. Today, that number is down to 12 percent. Is it a mere coincidence that our income inequality has accelerated as unions have deteriorated? No. Unions provided the surest, most powerful way that workers ever had to demanding a living wage and decent benefits. Collectively, they ensured that electricians, policemen, teachers, and coal miners would have disability pay for injuries, decent retirement pensions, and the right to take a bathroom break when necessary. The rise of the unions enabled millions of people to reach the middle class for the very first time.

Today's big CEO earns almost 400 times what the lowliest worker earns in that same corporation. In the 1950s the differential was an average of 20. All that money, going to the tippy tippy top of the one percent. That's not capital vs. labor. That's just plain greed.

So let's look at the result of that greed. Are those tippy top people your neighbors who spend money, time and energy to better your public schools, neighborhoods, and Main Streets? Unlikely, since their vested interest is in private schools, gated communities and luxury retailers.

Nineteen percent of American companies have written policies forbidding employees to even discuss how much they earn. Another 31 percent "discourage" it. Unions fight those policies, arguing correctly that you can't even begin to assess if you are getting fair compensation if you could get fired for even asking questions about how much your colleagues are earning.

When Mr. Walker was elected, he looked at the budget and he wasn't happy. He was bound to agreements that were signed before him that force taxpayers to pay wages that he personally would like to see reduced. I'm not sure what he expects the individual state trooper to do -- knock on the door and ask for a raise?

His solution, applauded by Republican leaders like Nikki Haley and Mitt Romney, is to break the contracts and change the rules. Tear up signed, negotiated contracts as if they never existed. Funny, but breaking contracts does not seem like the solution a free market Republican would endorse. Does it to you? After all, I thought if there was one thing Republicans stood for, it was the integrity of contracts. But I guess desperate times call for desperate measures, especially when you are the one holding the pen to write the checks.

Do not be fooled by the current Republican dogma that Wisconsinites voted for the end of collective bargaining. When polled, 60 percent of the Wisconsin electorate said they believed that a public servant should be recalled only for official misconduct. Official misconduct means lying, cheating or stealing in office. Scott Walker has never been accused of that. Scott Walker was on trial for his political beliefs, and the people of Wisconsin were smart enough to recognize that no one deserves to be recalled for that. When you disagree with someone's political policies, you vote them out of office, you don't throw them out of office. On the subject of collective bargaining in Wisconsin, the jury is still out.

We are at a critical juncture right now in this country. What's at stake is whether we turn into Latin America, where the rich hide behind gates with armed guards to protect their children from being kidnapped by the poor, or whether we reverse course and help ourselves back up on that ladder to the middle class. People will line up for any job to eat. "Right to work" states, which are a euphemism for anti-union states, are proliferating, convinced that the only way to attract business is to sell management on the idea that they don't have to pay their workers too much.

Our beloved middle class is disappearing right in front of our eyes. One of the few bright spots happens to be people lucky enough to be members of a union. If Scott Walker and other Republicans have their way, the only thing they will succeed in doing is making more people in this country poorer. Don't fool yourself into thinking that your tax burden will go down, or that the amount it is reduced by will actually serve to increase your standard of living. It won't. That money will pour into the coffers of the top one percent, as it has done for decades. Those tax savings will be used to lure big corporations into your state who will no longer have to pay anyone a living wage. Ask yourself if you want to use your vote to help the middle class, or hurt it. I know where I stand.

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