Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Concerning the various sins in Wisconsin

Financial Times:

It is easy for Republicans to point to Labour Department statistics that show benefits for unionised state and city public sector employees have increased 20 percentage points more than for private sector workers since 2001. Or that the relationship between unions and the Democratic party is a cosy one. (For example, more than $1m of contributions to Wisconsin’s Democrats came directly from unions last year, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.)

But that does not mean that collective bargaining caused Wisconsin’s projected $3.6bn deficit over the next two years or that ending it will fix the Badger State’s fiscal woes. Unions have already agreed to the necessary cuts in pension and heath benefits. Any debate for or against collective bargaining should be held well away from the heat of a fiscal crisis; the topic is a complex and well-researched one, deserving careful consideration.

There are a couple different groups to watch for in the course of our national budget cutting extravaganza. Let's start with the ruling class, which includes our nation's industrial and financial proprietors, as well as their "public" servants in government: Whether in Congress or on the job, you know them 'cos they make the rules! Then you have the working class, which includes private and public sector employees and their communities.

These classes aren't strictly separate from one another -- there is some overlap. One of the most important places where there is way too much overlap in interests is the mainstream US labor movement, which has surrendered most of its effectiveness vis-a-vis employers in exchange for a place at the table of the ruling class. This has produced a lot of contradictory dimensions to the US labor movement as a whole, and opens it up to criticism at many levels, which are in turn used by the ruling class to discredit not only its place at their table, but its right to exist at all. It is a perennial lament of working class advocates that US labor leaders insist on walking into this trap again and again by channeling resources to political parties of the ruling class.

One of the difficulties for any political party enjoined to safeguard the prerogatives of a tiny portion of the total population is to appeal to everyone else in a persuasive way. This is what the Republican Party has tried to do by making the national deficit their #1 issue. I see bumper stickers to the effect of, "My family can balance its budget, why can't Congress balance theirs?" But a family knows that if they are in debt to pay for a child's schooling, the answer is not to discard the child in order to balance their budget. In some cases it may not be practical to balance a budget or reduce a debt load right away. But because the idea that the government spends too much is a popular one, Republicans hope this can be used to enact "reforms" that will reduce the public obligation of the owners of America to its workers.

Political systems persist in large part by being so universally corrupt that individual parties can legitimately call each other out on their corruption forever. In this case, Republicans can get a lot of traction out of the above-stated relationship between the Democratic Party and public-sector unions. Aspects of "right-to-work" legislation are also buoyed by legitimate concerns, as when individual employees object to contributing union dues as a condition of their employment.

In navigating the conflict in Wisconsin and elsewhere, it is useful to separate the different groups by their fundamental class interests first, political allegiances second. This means putting the profit-seeking owners and their political agents on one side, and private and public sector employees and their communities on the other. The Democratic Party should not be seen as "standing up for working communities" when the only union model they endorse is one that funnels cash their way on the backs of even unwilling union members, leaving the broader movement vulnerable to resentment from their own communities.


Anonymous said...

Yes indeed! Mighty fine.

Anonymous said...

There was a time when workers were willing to fight for their rights instead of just hoping for what fell off the table. People died for the right to organize, the 40 hour week, health care, safety in the mines, fields and factories. Are we seeing the embers of that? These teachers and other workers rallying in Wisconsin need the support of all workers and each of us, I think must look to the heroes of Labor in the early 20th century and especially to those who kept fighting in the '50s and '60s to keep it going. It is unfortunate that some unions were overtly corrupt and others were corrupted by being co-opted into the political parties serving capital. That must not be our focus. Every worker deserves the respect and support of every other worker. Right now that means no worker can support either party, or even accept its help without first saying explicitly "You do not stand for us unless you stand with us." There will be few takers from the WSJ and few from the political classes.

boetian said...

Political systems persist in large part by being so universally corrupt that individual parties can legitimately call each other out on their corruption forever.

Just about perfect. On a side note, it strikes me as telling that it was back in the earliest stirrings of the labor movement, when the organizing was essentially spontaneous, and the organized existed outside of and in opposition to the spheres of power, THEN the ruling class considered strikers worth shooting at.