Teachers didn’t cause the financial crisis the United States is facing. Neither did sanitation workers, postal workers or construction workers.
No, the recession was a firmly upper-class disaster. Made possible by the irresponsible and selfish behavior of big banks, wealthy individuals and the government, the state of our economy has little to do with the actions of the middle class.
Yet in Wisconsin and around the country, the middle class is in danger of having to pay for it. Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) announced plans last month to get rid of collective bargaining rights for unions, which led to an immediate uproar. Eliminating bargaining rights means that non-law enforcement union workers could easily lose pensions and benefits, and suffer salary cuts, at the hands of the state. The bill would increase taxation and take away representation for millions of union workers in Wisconsin.
But they aren’t letting this happen without a fight. For weeks, union members and allies have been protesting in Wisconsin, Washington and across the nation, rejecting the step backwards that this bill would represent. Before modern unions like the AFL and CIO (now the AFL-CIO) gained real power in the 1930s, public sector workers had few rights when it came to issues like health care and living wages. The situation in the Badger State threatens to erase all the progress that has been made.
Walker and his supporters claim that this decision is purely financial, and that crippling the unions is the only viable way to restore the state’s economic health. But is an economy really healthy when a state has the power to completely cut a teacher’s pension plan?
In the March 2 article “Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?” The New York Times interviewed Erin Parker, a teacher who lives in Madison and will soon move in with her parents in Colorado because she cannot afford to live in Wisconsin after salary cuts. It doesn’t matter how much money a state government saves when children don’t have enough qualified teachers like Parker.
Furthermore, one of the reasons unions exist is job security. If the state can lay off whomever they choose, then even more people join the ranks of the unemployed, meaning more will be paid in unemployment benefits, and it will be harder for anyone to get a job.
And if the move really were all about saving money, there are other ways to go about this. Walker has refused to even entertain the idea of compromising with labor leaders by implementing pay cuts for state workers, who already enjoy higher salaries than most union laborers. That’s not democracy at work — it’s a sign of the growing power of the American plutocracy.
Although Wisconsin is the biggest example of danger to unions, the problem isn’t confined to those state lines. There is currently legislation in Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Illinois that would reduce union rights.
Although conservatives often cite unions as a corrupting factor in Washington D.C., in reality it’s lobbyists who have much more power. The lifeblood of Washington, corporate lobbyists represent a precious, rich few, complicating legislation to the point of virtual illegibility. All that complication adds up to millions and billions of dollars for the powerful minority and only more headaches for the working class.
If we as students hope to have a fighting chance to make a difference for the better once we graduate, we should support the protestors in Wisconsin. If we want our younger siblings and children to receive a proper K–12 education, we should support the efforts in Wisconsin. If we reject the idea that those who pulverized the economy should be able to reflect the consequences onto the middle class, we should support the efforts in Wisconsin.
It isn’t only about unions. It’s about the triumph of democracy over plutocracy.