I have never been part of a union, and there are times when I've felt that public sector unions have used their political clout to enact policies that were not in the public's interest. I also think that within both public and private organizations, unions can create formality and rigidity in labor-management relations that can impair organizational effectiveness. But like any wage-earning worker in America, I owe a great deal to the American Labor movement.
The legal protections that all workers enjoy against harassment, unsafe working conditions and arbitrary dismissal are products of the labor movement. While unions represent fewer and fewer of us, the threat of unionization makes employers provide higher salaries and benefits to non-unionized workers in the hope that they will remain non-unionized. Take away that threat and you take away an important source of leverage available to the average wage earner. The American middle class owes its existence to the fact and threat of union organizing. That is why the attack on public workers' right to collective bargaining is an attack on the middle class.
Governor Scott Walker is attempting to destroy public sector unions in Wisconsin. While the rights of private sector workers to organize are protected by federal law and are not a direct target of this disingenuous attack, we should assume that an attack on private sector worker rights will soon ensue. This attack on unions must be seen in the context of the ever increasing concentration of wealth now underway in America. In 21st century America, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the middle class is being squeezed into nonexistence.
It has now been over a half century since Lyndon Johnson and Sargent Shriver successfully made war on poverty, dramatically lowering the poverty rate from about 20% to 10%. Today it is closer to 15%, and by some measures, even higher. The problem with the extreme version of survival of the fittest capitalism that seems to be coming back into vogue is that it misses the key lesson of the Great Depression; without public policies that strengthen income levels at the bottom and the middle, economic consumption and economic confidence drops. If all you have is very rich people in gated communities hiding from poor people, you have a very different country than the one we try to have here. You have a country that is economically poor and politically divided. When that happens political stability disappears along with the middle class. While the American military contributes to the power and stability of the American state, the economy is the more fundamental source of American power. The nation's real economic and political strength resides in its large middle class. Mass buy-in to the American dream has long been the source this country's strength and stability. If we lose that, we are in big trouble.
Throughout the 1990's I used to teach a few days a year in a large Latin American city. One of the visual images I found most startling during my first visits there was the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. That is not to say that we do not have great poverty in America, but to this admittedly parochial New Yorker, the contrast between very rich and very poor was stunning. While I couldn't shake the images of shanty towns and poor children begging in the streets, it was clear that this was an accepted part of the local landscape. My hosts thought I was either a hypocrite or an idiot for noticing. For many Americans, poverty remains a problem to be solved, not the "natural order of things" and not a fate from which there is no escape.
When Bill Clinton ended "welfare as we know it," he recognized that the combination of racism and a dysfunctional welfare bureaucracy had created an ineffective, family-destroying welfare system. He wasn't trying to end assistance to poor people. His goal was to reform and improve anti-poverty policy. Wisconsin's Governor Walker is not trying to reform public sector unions; his clear goal is to destroy them.
It is true that the political strength of public sector unions has distorted public policy and created laws that place the interests of union members above that of the public. But so too have American businesses, including fossil fuel companies, farmers and anyone rich enough to fund a Political Action Committee (PAC) or a politician. American politics has always been a battle among powerful and usually wealthy interests. This goes back to the founding of the country when Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson led the fight between commercial and agricultural interests. Today the role of money in politics has reached absurd levels. But given that system, why shouldn't the unions use their numbers and dollars for political ends? That approach is as American as apple pie. But banning collective bargaining for unions is like banning profits for private corporations. It is an existential threat and should be rejected in a country that considers freedom a central value.
The battle in Wisconsin is about the balance of political forces in American politics. If unions are destroyed, those without great wealth will lose a vital representational institution. When the public lacks a means of effectuating peaceful change, they must choose between voicelessness and violence. Both are destabilizing. While FDR's New Deal had many wealthy antagonists, enough of the nation's elite had a sense of enlightened self interest to take the long view and sacrifice short term profit for long term gain. Governor Walker's attack on Wisconsin's unions will fail because he has gone too far, and even labor's opponents are seeking victory over unions rather than their destruction. It will also fail because he has inadvertently helped to unify an often fractious union community against a clear and obvious threat. It deserves to fail. It is a polarizing threat to American political stability.