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How the Left Sees the Union Crisis in Madison

Ronald Radosh

We live in two different worlds. Try looking at the situation in Wisconsin through the eyes of the American Left. They are, as my colleague Roger L. Simon so aptly puts it, thoroughly reactionary. For the Left, there is no real fiscal crisis. The states can easily afford to give the public sector unions everything they ask for. There is one easy answer: tax the rich.

Because the great right-wing conspiracy has been so effective, due to its funding by the Koch brothers, the masses have been manipulated to vote for their own worst enemies. Marx’s theory of “false consciousness” has been proved once again. “__What’s the matter with Kansas?” indeed. If only they all read __The Nation there would be no problem. And evidently, they don’t even read Paul Krugman. If they did, they would see that the great economist explained it all: the Right doesn’t care about reality; they just want power. Their real goal, says Krugman, is nothing less than “to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.”

Let us pause for a moment to ask whether Krugman is serious. The Wisconsin voters, having heard Governor Walker campaign on a promise to rein in the public sector unions and do something about Wisconsin’s debt crisis, not only voted him in, but voted in Republicans overwhelmingly in once Democratic districts. So democracy did its job, but not to Krugman’s liking. The people want an oligarchy.

For the entire Left, the budget is simply the excuse to gain power and crush the unions. The academic leftists, as expected, are also weighing in. On the History News Network site, leftist historian Mark Naison looks back nostalgically at the Flint, Michigan, sit-down strikes in 1936-37, seeing today’s Madison events as the modern equivalent — a watershed moment for the labor movement. Not even pausing to address the major differences between this era’s public sector unions and the assembly line industrial unions of the Depression era, Naison sees the strikes as simply about “dignity and respect,” not income.

Naison reminds readers that the auto workers, helped by “numerous left-wing organizations,” occupied the factories, ending their occupation only when GM and U.S. Steel agreed to bargain collectively with the recently formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). So Naison calls for a similar movement today — urging delegations from every state in the union “to join the occupation and the protests and give whatever financial aid and legal support is necessary to teachers who are keeping the local schools closed.”

Of course, no sooner did his article hit the web than the union asked teachers to return to work. Their leadership realizes that their action has produced a huge backlash among working men and women in Wisconsin, who can’t go to work because they have to stay home to watch the kids. Besides resenting that kind of behavior at their own jobs, they have nothing compared to what the public sector workers have in their contracts with the state.

Joining him in a similar assessment is the socialist labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein. At least Lichtenstein realizes that the nation is talking about public sector unions, not industrial unions of a bygone age. He acknowledges the real question: “Who will pay for the budget deficits that bedevil so many states?” But he also knows the other question is whether or not “the unions [will] continue to be a backbone of the Democratic Party….” He also acknowledges another truth — that “public employees are far more likely to be unionized than private-sector workers.”

Lichtenstein, however, does not comprehend the nature of what has become a real sweetheart deal for the public sector unions. Union PACs use member dues to support and elect Democrats. Then, the same unions sits before these elected officials to negotiate contracts. These elected politicians then do all they can to give the union reps everything they ask for. It worked for a long time, especially in large urban cities like New York, until that city found its own books ready to collapse.

Fred Siegel, our best commentator on the plight of the cities, explained how it all works to Wall Street Journal political reporter John Fund:

Labor historian Fred Siegel offers further reasons why unions are manning the barricades. [Gov. Scott] Walker would require that public-employee unions be recertified annually by a majority vote of all their members, not merely by a majority of those that choose to cast ballots. In addition, he would end the government’s practice of automatically deducting union dues from employee paychecks. For Wisconsin teachers, union dues total between $700 and $1,000 a year.

“Ending dues deductions breaks the political cycle in which government collects dues, gives them to the unions, who then use the dues to back their favorite candidates and also lobby for bigger government and more pay and benefits,” Mr. Siegel told me. After New York City’s Transport Workers Union lost the right to automatic dues collection in 2007 following an illegal strike, its income fell by more than 35% as many members stopped ponying up. New York City ended the dues collection ban after 18 months.

When public workers strike, it is not the employer who pays them the benefits they gain in a contract, it is the other people in their own state, many of them workers themselves, and some of them even union workers. More and more, the public at large is fed up with public sector workers living much better than they do, especially when they realize the better situation is coming out of their own pockets, not that of a large corporation.

So what the Left argues is the continuing stale refrain that this is a “final offensive against America’s unions” by the right wing, as another Nation writer, Jane McAlevey, explains to her readers. In her lexicon, the ever more popular Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is “beating up on public school teachers.” She clearly thinks is a phony “drumbeat” about “states going broke because of government workers’ wages, pensions and benefits.” And forget about educational reform. She warns that some states — horrors — want school districts to move “to charter schools or to voucher programs.” She does not ask why these are popular, and why so many of the urban underclass is desperate for real educational reform so that their children also have a chance to get the same kind of education enjoyed by the children of leftist and liberal elites, many of whom send their kids to private schools

Save us from those “right-wing think tanks,” she screams, never asking why the influence of leftist equivalents like The Center for American Progress and its proposals do not seem to gather support, although they are just as well funded as their conservative counterparts. She even quotes Tim Pawlenty’s accurate observation that “unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debts.” I truly wonder if any of her readers paused to notice that Pawlenty makes sense, while her own arguments do not.

No wonder that the teacher union protestors in Madison resort to picket signs that depict their elected governor as Hitler, Mussolini or Mubarak. It is far easier to slander their opponent as a tyrant than come up with a serious discussion of how to solve the fiscal crisis facing the state they work in. Because if they did get serious, they would have to start by realizing that the concessions that Governor Walker is asking them to make are both fair and necessary. They can sign “Solidarity Forever” and “Which Side Are You On?” all they want, but it isn’t the 1930s anymore.

Sooner or later, even the Wisconsin teacher union members will come to understand the new reality.