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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Theses on Unions, Wisconsin, and Other Things

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

So last night, the Republicans in the Wisconsin state senate passed the bill which Governor Scott Walker has made the cornerstone of his new administration: stripping collective bargaining rights from most of the public employee unions of the state (the police and firefighters were exempt). They did this, despite the absence of the Democrats needed to form a quorum, by stripping from the bill all spending or fiscal matters--in other words, reducing the bill to the plain contest over political power which I and many others said it was weeks ago.

What will come next is anyone's guess. Thousands are gathering in Madison for perhaps the largest demonstration yet. The polls show that Governor Walker and the local Republicans have taken a beating for attacking the rights of school teachers and other public employees. This fight over unions has mobilized certain voters to high levels of activism; recall election drives against state politicians are underway, and one against Governor Walker himself probably isn't too far distant. It's tense, it's infuriating, it's exciting, it's dramatic...one might say, it's politics. That's Ezra Klein's view, anyway:

It seems to me that the system worked. Democrats were able to slow the process down and convince both voters in Wisconsin and the national media that there was something beyond business as usual happening in Madison. National and state polls show they were successful in that effort. Walker and the Senate Republicans ignored the Democrats’ attempts at compromise and ignored the public turning against them and decided to pass the legislation anyway.

That was their prerogative, and now it’s up to the voters to decide whether to recall the eight Senate Republicans who are eligible for judgment this year, and to defeat Walker and the other Republicans in a year or two, when they become vulnerable to a recall election. That’s how representative democracy, for better or worse, works. The representatives can make unpopular decisions, but the voters can punish them for it. I thought that during the health-care debate, and I think that now--though I would be interested to see whether any of the conservative voices who were shocked and appalled by President Obama’s decision to ignore public opinion and finish health-care reform using the reconciliation process are calling for Walker’s head today. If not, I think they need to ask themselves what makes this case different.

I suppose I'm mostly with Ezra here--I can talk at length about how I'd like to see our political system take a more populist, participatory, parliamentary form, but in the end I concur: elections matter, majorities matter, the stability of the system matters (though I'll admit that I've become a lot friendlier to the idea of recall elections than I was back in 2003, despite still wishing we could reform our system more fundamentally, rather than adding various often-easily-hijacked-by-outside-interests reforming corrections on to it). Still, all that being said, there is still the matter of these anecdotes aplenty, all observing that Walker and the Wisconsin GOP presented a false face during the 2010 elections, never hinting that they believed addressing the states budget crisis would require to turn on what many call "The Wisconsin Idea". And that, I think, is a point where we can talk about differences, where we can talk about whether or not an action--this action by the Wisconsin GOP in particularly--truly is "democratic," truly does respect the wishes of a community, a state, a people, to govern themselves as they understand themselves. For the Wisconsin understanding is, historically at least, deeply tied up with assumptions about egalitarianism and the public good. Whatever the power (or lack thereof) of the case which President Obama and the Democrats made to the American people for national health care reform, it greatly pales beside the associative power which unions have in the Badger State. Christopher Phelps put it this way:

Madison is a capital city filled with public employees who take pride in the knowledge that Wisconsin was, in 1959, the first state to recognize public workers' collective-bargaining rights. The Wisconsin Idea--a classroom staple of the very schoolteachers whose labor rights are now threatened--has been given new life by the multitudes chanting, "This is what democracy looks like." Those who have been peopling ("occupying" is not quite the right word) the Wisconsin Capitol represent a remarkable diversity of professions and callings: corrections officers, graduate teaching assistants, letter carriers, carpenters, steelworkers, and students....In an equally arresting development, many school-board and county officials, although they might have been expected to welcome the prospect of weakened unions, have warned that the governor's proposed dismantling of labor rights might mean a return to the disruption of basic services from strikes, as happened often in the era before collective bargaining....When Madison teachers called a "sick out," a judge declined to issue an injunction against them on the basis that they were not violating their contractual obligation not to strike because they made no demands upon the school district and were instead protesting before the state government. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, promised when visiting Madison that on whatever day the measure is signed into law, "We will be in the streets."

When I wrote about this conflict before, I wrote about it, at least in part, from my position as a conflicted, compromised localist--and that's still my position. But my position is a populist and socialist one too. Achieving the kind of economic democracy, the kind of community integrity, the kind of equality and solidarity, that I'd like to see may be impossible (may, in fact, be utopian)...but to whatever degree it may be possible, it necessitates challenging those socio-economic presumptions which insist that serving the interests of corporations engaged in trade and investment, and the needs of banks and bondholders who establish the terms of those investments--in short, the imperatives of a mostly unregulated ever-expanding (and, therefore, ever-disrupting) marketplace--must take priority. Are unions a good tool for making such a challenge?

Front Porch Republic ended up hosting a strong exchange on this topic, as did Salon's War Room blog, as did The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Kevin Carson's contribution to the latter is must reading, for anyone--whether their inclinations lean communitarian (like mine) or libertarian (like his)--concerned about the requirements of economic independence and democracy. Basically he's strongly pro-union, but he makes that case while pointing out that unions have, for decades (he takes it back to the Wagner Act; I would take it back even further, to the end of the Progressive era and the eclipse of the IWW--and its model of direct action in support of workplace democracy--by other union organizations, one's less caught up in early 20th-century struggles with communism), been partners in making certain industrial capitalism maintained its stability and predictability. Collective bargaining agreements, the heart of the (for now) failed campaign in Wisconsin, are important, but not as important as unions could be were laws (and, perhaps, social and economic expectations) changed so as to allow them the operate a mutually supporting, networked guilds, capable of more direct (and less predictable) actions against firms and other economic actors that disrupt community life. But all that kind of talk--"community life" and the rest--can sound quaint when one is faced with losing the ability to bargain with one's employer over wages and working conditions. It was those things, and the political processes that enable workers to be equal partners in the determination of them, which lay at the heart of the "Wisconsin Idea," an undeniably Progressive vision which sought to streamline and reform and make fairer capitalism, not radically challenge it.

James Matthew Wilson's thoughtful post at FPR is, I think, basically uncomfortable with unions, but primarily because he seems them as representing a kind of delusion, a characteristically American unwillingness to recognize that budgets, like everything else, must operate within limits. He allowed, though, when pressed by comments from me and others, that the same can be said of Governor Walker and Wisconsin GOP leaders: to present the removal of right for public employees to unionize and negotiate, a right which Wisconsin pioneered a half-century ago, as a fiscal correction necessary to resolving the state's budget woes...while also passing a budget which grants large tax breaks and business incentives which cut into the state's revenue, is, at the least, a little questionable. Could Walker make the case that, in following the economic imperatives of late capitalism--namely, luring national and international money to the state, in the form of businesses that will create jobs and turn profits--he is concerned with the "common good" of Wisconsin? That he is being the responsible one? Perhaps...but responsible to whom? This is a struggle that runs through much of the localist project, and it is not an easy one to resolve: what if it is the culture of a place, the will of a people (and the massive demonstrations in Madison have to be at least one demonstration of just what that culture or idea may be), is such that they are truly attached, in the fullest, most civic sense of the word, to compromises which the more radical among us disdain? Look at the blog Milwaukee Rising, pointed out to me by a fine FPR commenter; the author is no automatic friend of unions, and in fact recognizes them as anything but an oppressed minority voice in Wisconsin--yet also recognizes that what they are fighting for is part of the fabric of the state, connected to democratic traditions like the Open Meetings (something every believer in local government ought to support!), and basically central to the character of the state. That certainly doesn't mean they shouldn't or couldn't be reformed (as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein observes, it's really not so much the collective bargaining itself which matters, as the simple fact of having structures that bring workers together, to recognize their common interests, express solidarity amongst themselves, and form "countervailing forces" to challenge those in positions of economic authority and power). It only means that, if one wishes to get all classically republican, and point out that unions partake of a system which presumes that portions of the whole will invariably be set against itself (a criticism which I reluctantly have to agree with), then one ought to accept 1) that wholly non-capitalist options should always be on the table, and 2) that if there are communities of people who have embraced one progressive-liberal response to the problems of capitalism, and made it so much their own it's barely noticed until a politician tries to take it all away--which seems to be as good a description of the situation in Wisconsin today as any--then one ought, if one is a localist, to accept and embrace and work with and through it. The least democratic, least communitarian, least localist thing, it's seems to me, would be to assume that the union-defenders of Wisconsin don't know what they want, assume they aren't doing this themselves (an assumption which, if posed, could be just as easily extended to Governor Walker himself), or assume that what they want is wrong, because the rules laid down the bankers and bondholders and corporations cannot possibly be lived within any other way.

Is the Wisconsin way a legitimate one? Michael Lind argued that unions represent just one of several strands of capitalism-reforming egalitarianism, and probably not the best either. Lind would prefer what he calls "social democracy"--a ground-floor of "universal, contributory social insurance programs," rather than a patchwork of contracts providing wages and benefits sufficient for maintaining a family and a neighborhood (assuming the union lets you in the door). A response to him from Matthew Dimick points out the social insurance programs--like Social Security, for one--are invariably limited in their redistributive power, and become skewed in absolute terms towards the middle and upper-classes in society; the only way to keep the project of real economic equality politically feasible is to minimize the felt costs of universal social insurance programs, and that means lessening "pre-tax, pre-transfer inequality," so that redistribution does not present such an obvious target. What can do that? The bargaining power of unions, he says. But Lind is doubtful--the increasing inequalities in American life, the ones which make all acts of economic redistribution suspicious, because so costly and obvious, to those in the middle and upper classes, is not, he thinks, something unions can do much about; the real scourge is a libertarian ethic, which has left the financial center unregulated, and the borders open:

The growth of American CEO salaries, extreme as it is in international comparison, has been dwarfed by the explosion of compensation to elites in the financial sector. The bonanzas reaped by the tycoons of finance result from the deregulation of the financial industry by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, combined with the socialization of the costs incurred by "too big to fail" financial firms. Vast fortunes have been made in finance by individuals who are allowed to keep the profits from highly-leveraged gambling, while their losses are absorbed by the taxpayers. If the financial industry in the U.S. had continued to be a tightly regulated utility, then elite bankers would never have become vastly richer than ordinary business executives. Pre-tax inequality in the U.S. would have been much reduced, unions or no unions....

While the top of the labor market in the U.S. has blown off, the bottom has fallen out at the same time. The decline of labor unions is one factor--but again, only one. Another factor has been mass immigration. With a few exceptions, like the late Barbara Jordan, most liberals refuse to admit that mass immigration by disproportionately poor and uneducated workers in the last generation has had anything to do with reducing wages for janitors, construction workers and nursing home aides....Mass immigration can harm unionization in two ways: directly, by providing an ever-growing pool of non-union "scabs" to replace workers who seek to unionize, and indirectly, by increasing divisions among workers along non-economic lines that increase the difficulty of collaboration. For two decades now, some utopian progressives have claimed that it is possible to reconcile mass immigration with increased unionization by unionizing both natives and immigrants. In theory anything is possible but in practice private sector union membership has continued to crumble in the face of mass immigration.

Lind's doubts are shared by some of those libertarians as well; Jason Kuznicki, a smart and realistic libertarian thinker (I wonder why he hasn't joined up with Bleeding Heart Libertarians yet?), makes some similar observations:

[I]t’s far from clear that labor unions can correct the specific type of inequality that we face today. CEO compensation is huge, yes, but the super-rich are not merely or even primarily CEOs these days. Instead, they’re generally in finance. How do you go on strike against an investment banker? Who exactly is he oppressing? Against the management of a steel mill, a union would be the right tool for the job. Here? I’m not convinced....I’m not denying that finance is capturing a larger and larger share of wealth. It certainly appears to be. The problem is that financiers don’t face a discrete class of disfavored people who can easily self-identify and organize to demand, through some workable mechanism, their fair share of the pie.

In reading these reasonable points--with which I'm pretty strongly tempted to agree whole-heartedly--I am struck my two points. First, that they presume, without any real question, that the structures of global capitalism--specifically, the financial institutions which generate the excess liquid capital that investors and businesspeople make use of--have enabled certain individuals to enrich themselves enormously, to the detriment of general equality and thus the health of the body politic. Second, that they throw up their hands when confronted by such structures; Lind would prefer these institutions be treated as a "tightly regulated utility," and Jason imagines that "higher marginal tax rates" ought to be in out future, but neither contemplate trying to find an alternative to, or a means of operating without, such inequality-generating, and hence equality and solidarity-destroying, global structures in the first place....especially since developing such alternative, non-global, more localized, ways of conducting transactions and fulfilling social and economic needs would likely go hand in hand with addressing the second significant cause of pre-tax, pre-transfer inequality in the United States which Lind mentioned: namely, a porous border that benefits (sometimes) many thousands of undocumented workers every year, and lines the pockets (always) of many cut-rate, highly profitable corporations every year, but doesn't do much at all for the general community, the nation, in between. I suppose it actually doesn't surprise to not see this connection made by Jason, as I assume our cultural perspectives are too far apart for him to make the leap from his libertarian position to my communitarian, democratic socialist one, however much we may agree on the problem of inequality. But I am surprised that Lind doesn't make it. Perhaps he's too much of a nationalist to recognize that some ideas worth fighting for aren't country-wide; they may be particular to a state. They may be found, for instance, in Wisconsin.

A confession: I've been to Wisconsin only twice. Went to a national high school debate tournament held in Eau Claire back in 1985, and I went to an international conference to J.G. Herder in Madison a few years ago. So truly, I don't know the state at all. But I know the legacy of Bob La Follette, and I know that, if I'm going to be caught between radical visions of decentralism and economic reform, and a corporate liberalism which is satisfied with mitigating capitalism where and when it may, then I like La Follette's determination to weave the best compromise he could into the social fabric; to make his vision--much of which apparently became second-nature to the socio-economic expectations and preferences of most Wisconsinites until this very day. That's not going to create the perfect localist, or populist, or socialist community. But it'd create a pretty fine state. So as long as there are unions who seem to be capable, whatever their overall conceptual limitations, for fighting for that idea, for fighting for that state, then I'll support them--I'll support Wisconsin. Sure hope Governor Walker doesn't trash the place any further.


BHodges said...

I'd have to read this 5 times to get the full gist of it, but my initial reading makes me inclined to sign up to your perspective for the present.

Kristen said...

The thing that bugs me most about all of it (and I live in Madison) is that Walker had a unique chance to do some meaningful reforms. He could have improved the collective bargaining processes and increased public sector contributions to pensions/health insurance. I suspect he could have done this with the support of a majority of WI (both liberals and conservatives.) But instead of leading our state to a better fiscal place, he decided to go political and try to completely destroy unions and public education. Even though I agreed with some of his ideas, I was so completely repelled by his process (or lack thereof) that I have been out protesting loudly almost every day.