There is so much exciting news happening in the world these days that it is hard to keep up on it all. Much of my attention is drawn toward the Middle East, where its oppressed people are removing autocrats and trying to stand up institutions that may actually resemble a functioning democracy. Here at home, my attention is also focused on Madison, Wisconsin and the great surprise that occurred there as both organized labor and ordinary people fight back against an obsessed governor and legislature. Both seem determined to end most collective bargaining rights by public workers, causing alarmed Wisconsin Senate Democrats to flee across the border to Illinois so the Senate could not reach a quorum. In addition, here in Washington, D.C. it is fascinating and scary to watch a deeply divided Congress at work as it does this weird Kabuki fiscal dance. In fits and starts, it is trying not to shut down the government, a task that you would think would come naturally. We federal employees appear to have a two-week reprieve from a possible indefinite layoff while the mighty titans on Capitol Hill and in the White House simultaneously try to have everything their way while compromising without really roiling their base.
The common theme is that for a change people everywhere are politically engaged. This is actually heartwarming in a way. At least here in America, while the fringes tend to be politically engaged, the masses tend toward inertia and ignorance, feeling they are destined to have to make do with whatever spoils the power brokers toss their way.
Unquestionably, the situation in Wisconsin has captured the attention of the nation, and not just at its political fringes but also the typically inert masses. If health care reform fired up the Republican Party last year, Wisconsin’s bold attempt to crush public employee unions has become a compelling story that virtually anyone can relate to. It is hard to be apathetic on the issue. You either want to see those evil public employee labor unions finally crushed or you feel like these workers are the last gasp of our great middle class and we need to stand by them. It’s hard to hate a firefighter, police office or a teacher, when at best they are living in a modest brownstone, particularly when you encounter Miss Jones at Back to School night.
This is not a Reagan vs. PATCO situation. Public employees in Wisconsin are not out on strike. They have already conceded that the tough economy will require sacrifices to their standard of living and have agreed to further wage and benefit concessions. That is not good enough though for Governor Scott Walker and the Republican dominated legislature. They want to end collective bargaining rights for public employees except when negotiating pay, except they cannot really negotiate pay beyond what the legislature decides their pay will be. Presumably, they could negotiate if they want less pay. This means, effectively, that their public employee unions would be toothless entities. To Wisconsin public workers, this is like being knifed and twisting in the knife. It’s not only unnecessary, it’s downright cruel and demonstrates contempt and sadism by those running government for those who do public work.
This standoff is in many ways a watershed moment. It is coincidental that is happening at the exact time that democracy is spreading in the Middle East. Yet it still seems weird. The people of the Middle East want democracy and freedoms. Here in the United States, using the rube of lean times those allegedly pro-freedom loving Republicans in power are trying to take away freedoms, including the right to collectively bargain. The lesson that the unwashed masses are taking from all of this, and why they are on the side of public employees for a change, is that those in power not only want to cut our wages and benefits but they want to disenfranchise them as well, permanently taking away some of our hard earned rights. Many of these people were sympathetic to the need for smaller government. Until now, they did not understand that when Republicans are in charge they also work to permanently disenfranchise ordinary working people.
Even if Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans prevail in this fight, as looks likely, it is likely that these reforms will not stick for long. This is a bridge too far. It crossed some sort of hitherto uncrossed line on what is and is not acceptable. Just because you can do something does not mean does not mean that you should, and in doing so you can cross a moral line in the sand that Republicans hitherto did not see. You might say it’s one of their blind spots, because Republicans (like many of us Democrats) will not walk in someone else’s shoes for a while.
Why this should come as a surprise to working class America is perhaps a surprise in itself. It’s not like Republicans have not been consistently anti-union and anti-labor. It’s not like they have not tried tactics like this before. Americans tend to like change incrementally, rather than radically. It was why the Affordable Care Act stirred a ruckus and frightened the working class. It was a big change. The status quo may be unaffordable in the long term, but at least it is reasonably comfortable. Wise Republicans like Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana know they can press an issue only so far. Mitch Daniels is also busy trying to cut wages and benefits for public employees, but he so far won’t cross the Rubicon and try to dismantle public employee unions as well. Wise Republicans know that they way to dismantle unions is not explicitly, but implicitly. The tactic has worked for years. It was encouraged by obsessive right to work laws, pension reforms that let corporations ditch pension obligations, and other laws that blessed corporations and marginalized workers. Right now only seven percent of the American workforce is unionized, down from its peak of 22 percent in 1972. At some point if a group is marginalized enough, they become irrelevant.
Press too hard and the oppressed, rather than grumble, will rebel. The line was crossed in Wisconsin and it is energizing those engaged in workers’ rights and well as Democrats and progressives in general. Moreover, America is paying close attention. Republicans in the House should pay attention as well, as there are eighty-seven new Republicans anxious to take a meat cleaver to government. They say it is necessary and perhaps they are right, but it will prove counterproductive to their hold on power if they actually succeed.
Changes that stick require consensus from all parties, and are not dictated from those who have the power. Democrats may learn that because of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, because it put eighty-seven new Republicans in the House. Republicans who refuse to find common ground with the minority will also find the predictable reaction as well, the prequel of which can now be seen in Wisconsin and read in opinion polls. If they do not find common ground, Republicans will find that their hold on the House and in Wisconsin short lived indeed.