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Who Says It's Not About Destroying Unions?

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The centennial commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York City, with the loss of 146 young women trapped in a factory that had blatantly ignored the meager safety legislation of the time, paradoxically raises the question of whether we are doomed to forget the past. The sight in 1911 of people leaping to their deaths from nine stories up made an indelible impression upon Frances Perkins, later Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of labor. As secretary of the National Consumers League, Perkins led the drive for reform. She later recalled that "the Triangle fire was a torch that lighted up the whole industrial scene." Certainly, the tragedy spurred the growth of labor unions, and progressive work and safety legislation designed to protect and advance the rights of working people.

For those with a historical animus against the organizing and advancement of labor, the current strife in Wisconsin and other states offers a happy prospect for the resurrection of a dismal past of exploitation and the re-creation of a downtrodden working class. In Maine, the Republican governor ordered the removal of a mural depicting Maine's labor history, as well as the renaming of the Frances Perkins Meeting Room in the state's Labor Department building. Gov. Paul LePage, who supports a right-to-work bill, apparently heard some complaints from a few business organizations. In ordering the removal, the governor said he feared the mural "sends a message that we're one-sided." Perhaps on a national level, the Republicans will further rewrite history and remove Perkins' name from the U.S. Department of Labor building in Washington.

Champions of Wisconsin's progressive tradition--and much of what is called the "Wisconsin Idea"--are now reeling as the governor and Legislature seem determined to overthrow the past. Whether in polite country club conversation or in the angry voices of barroom exchanges, we have an atavistic, ugly strain of hostility toward public workers, and even the idea of unions, that arouses some of our most divisive political dialogue. U.S. House Republicans, by way of example, have proposed legislation that would deny food stamps to the children or relatives of any worker who strikes. Real budget hawks, those people.

Yet where and when have any candidates for public office declared and advocated such hostility and promised to destroy unions? Neither Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker nor his dutiful followers in the Legislature ever, ever openly called for the actions they are now taking. Theirs was a stealth campaign, one of calculated deceit.

Walker's so-called "budget repair" legislation targeted and crippled the public employees' unions, but none of the fiscal provisions have yet been passed--exposing the governor's false flag. It is teachers unions that most arouse anti-union hostility. The idea that teachers should have any kind of equal bargaining status with public officials is simply unpalatable and unacceptable to many. Michelle Rhee, the darling of conservatives (for numerous odd reasons), enthusiastically has backed the right of collective bargaining for teachers.

For those who regard teachers as only glorified baby sitters who must be content with contracts as handed down and must not cost them too much in taxes, the current assault must be pleasing. Indeed, the new state legislation has bestowed a cloak of legitimacy to local officials anxious to circumscribe any notion of teachers' rights. The school board of Middleton-Cross Plains, a Madison, Wis., suburb, offers a case in point.

At the height of the large-scale public protests against the governor's anti-union measure, that board very publicly expressed solidarity and comfort with its teachers--specifically, endorsing the teachers' right to collective bargaining. In a letter to the teachers (addressed as "staff"), the board noted the "unsettling" times but nevertheless stressed its appreciation of teachers, particularly "for the work you continue to do on behalf of our students." They recognized the teachers as "highly trained, motivated, and essential," and said that as such "[w]e want to work collaboratively with you." A "respectful and cooperative relationship" is necessary, noted the board, whose closing message could not have been clearer: "We look forward to bargaining in good faith with you. We support the right of our staff to actively bargain."

The school board's president spent several days at the protest rallies in the state Capitol. But exactly what she was rallying for is not clear. With the governor's union-busting legislation in place, the school board promptly changed its tune and revealed plans of its own on how it would work with the teachers. No more solidarity; instead, the school board established an adversarial stance of its own, mirroring Gov. Walker's deceit.

The board and the teachers held three "negotiating" sessions, ostensibly to settle a contract before the new law took effect. But at these meetings, the "staff" was denied the participation of its lawyers--a portent of what was to come. The school board president, apparently reborn with a new lack of faith in the "staff," said: "We are trying to establish the right of the district to fire a teacher we believe parents don't want."

Fire a parentally unwanted teacher--with what kind of standard? Parents who do not want their children taught about sex and health, or the facts of evolution, or a factual understanding of the American Constitution? Parents who do not want a teacher who gave their child a failing grade? Parents who are angry about the disciplining of a child? The school board simply would elevate coffee-klatch talk to the level of legal standards.

The board proposes a grievance system devoid of any semblance of due process. Its new contract submission begins by stating that it "shall not constitute or be enforceable as a contract"--which is, of course, legalese for effectively destroying union participation and authority. The board flatly asserted control over all decision-making power, including discipline and discharge. It deftly removed all "just cause" references, and it retained a grievance process--sort of--which allows the board to choose the third-party grievance officer, while both sides will pay the bill. No matter what the recommendation of the grievance officer may be, the board will make the "final and binding decision."

The union has taken court action, claiming the school board bargained in bad faith, noting how other districts extended existing contracts before the new law took effect. The school board's president called the complaint "frivolous and without merit." She expressed a willingness to negotiate, but only if "there is clarity regarding our legal authority to negotiate." In other words, the governor and the Legislature have said no negotiations, ergo the board cannot negotiate. Heads I win, tails you lose.

The union issue is important, but we must not lose sight of the fact that state services in general, and education in particular, are at stake in all this. Taxes are fairly high in Wisconsin, but grumbling about them largely is confined to a small group, daresay those with little stake in education and services. Public schools, of course including the University of Wisconsin, are of high quality, and the citizenry is proud of that fact. Contrast that scenario with Washington, D.C., with its poor educational system and very high taxes.

Scott Walker is mugging Wisconsin's educational tradition. He has proposed cuts of nearly $1 billion in state aid to local school districts while capping their levels of taxation. Apparently he is supporting the idea of spinning the university off from the state system, largely because he now will include all university employees as part of his "250,000 new jobs." The state and municipalities have yet to see the impact of his program on recruiting and retaining good teachers. The outcome is all too apparent.

Life goes on. The grass is sprouting on the trampled grounds at the state Capitol, the Legislature is in recess and the governor wants nothing less than a do-over of the 20th century. Meanwhile, killing the bargaining rights of teachers, providing a one-sided grievance and disciplinary process and reducing their incomes apparently are vital parts of the governor's plan to open the state for "business."

Stanley Kutler is the author of "The Wars of Watergate" and other writings.