By Lauren | March 10, 2011
I’ve been watching the situation in Wisconsin with great interest, but haven’t been sure how to comment on it. On one hand, it strikes me as a little silly for Democratic state senators to flee across state lines to avoid a vote they couldn’t win. (Run, Toto, run …) On the other hand, I’m puzzled as to why Wisconsin’s Republican Governor and state senators are so eager to strip public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights. After last night’s circus, however, when Republican state senators rewrote their proposed legislation so they could slam it through in seconds without the Democrats there, I picked a side, and it wasn’t the Republicans.
As the drama in Wisconsin has unfolded, there’s been a lot of commentary about the history of the union movement in this country. Experts have been quick to point out that unions were essential to correct the life-threatening conditions in 19th century sweatshops, and that unions played a key role in creating the American middle class. That’s all true, but it’s also also past tense, and I’m troubled by a sense that even the most dedicated supporters of unions seem to think that they’ve become irrelevant. I don’t agree, and here’s why:
People who work in unionized jobs typically don’t have a lot of individual clout. They often do work that’s dangerous, dirty or under-paid. If they didn’t have unions to give them some bargaining power, their employers could walk all over them. I’d love to believe that employers have become civilized enough to treat their workers decently without pressure from unions, but the facts don’t support that belief. Just look at the conditions in the Upper Big Branch Mine or on the oil rigs that BP ran in the Gulf. Imagine how much worse things would be if the unions weren’t there to protest on their members’ behalf, or to negotiate with management for decent hours, wages and working conditions.
There’s been a lot of historic discomfort around public sector unions, in part because people are afraid of what might happen if government workers strike. If the police force, the fire department, teachers or postal workers go out, chaos ensues. You can take that as proof that public sector workers shouldn’t be allowed to stand up for themselves … or you can take it as proof that the work they do is so essential that they deserve good pay, meaningful benefits and tolerable working conditions. Personally, I think it’s the latter.
“Collective bargaining” is nothing more than sitting down with union representatives to hammer out the terms of employment for union workers. It’s not all that different from negotiating individuals’ salaries and benefits, just on a larger scale. If Governor Walker thinks that state employees are overpaid or underworked, he should sit down – himself or through appointed negotiators – and argue with their unions. It’s not necessarily fun to do, but it’s an essential part of heading up state government. Instead of stripping state workers of their fundamental rights to organize and speak with one voice, Governor Walker should roll up his sleeves and do his job, just as he wants them to do theirs.