Wis. Protests Are Watershed Opportunity for Working People

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's assault on workers provides a rare watershed opportunity for working people to educate the public about unions and collective bargaining and to create momentum to rebuild the union movement.

In two guest columns at the AFL-CIO, professors Joseph McCartin and Paul Clark say Walker's plan to eliminate collective bargaining is all about gaining power and that the American people see it for what it is.

McCartin, director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and associate professor of history at Georgetown University, told the AFL-CIO Executive Council earlier this month that local union leaders' actions exposed Walker's motives and that gives workers an opening to change the nation's perception of unions.

It is this realization [that Walker is after power] that has brought people into the streets, suddenly and spontaneously; this realization that has galvanized people in ways you could never have planned or foreseen.

According to a recent New York Times poll, more than 40 percent of respondents had neither a positive nor a negative view of unions. The size of that group, McCartin says, indicates public opinion is in flux.

Suddenly you have an opportunity to explain...why unions are necessary; why they are vital in a democracy; and to do it in a way that connects to people's realities. Walker has given you an opportunity to make a case that you haven't had an opportunity to make on the national stage in a while....You must seize this opportunity and make the most of it.

And the facts are on our side, says Clark, who heads the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University. He worked in a factory at age 18 and learned first hand the value of collective bargaining.

I had the worst job in the place and it was a tough way to make a living. But on breaks, the old-timers would tell us new hires how much better things were since the union had been voted in. They told me to hang in there and after six months or so I could probably bid for a better job. Without that option, I probably would have quit within a week!

He says workers can make the case for public employee collective bargaining by pointing out that collective bargaining raises compensation for public employees, increasing their standard of living. This enables public employers to compete in the labor market for higher quality workers and attract better employees who, in the past, would not have considered a career in government.

Public-sector bargaining is also an exercise in democracy, which is why virtually all democratic nations in the world embrace it, and why it is one of the first things that dictators suppress when they take power. Public-sector unions also regularly work in partnership with governments to improve services and cut operational costs.

Clark notes that one of the most important roles unions play is to act as a counterbalance to the power and influence of employers and other groups.

Most Americans believe strongly in the idea of checks and balances and understand that unchecked power, whether in a workplace or in politics, is a dangerous thing. While the influx of big money in politics may be lamentable, without unions one side of the political spectrum, the right, would basically own government.

The bottom line, Clark says,

is that Walker's efforts to dismantle the system of bargaining for public employees that has served the state well seems much more about what is best for Walker and his party then it is about what is best for Wisconsin. It appears to be a cynical exercise in political opportunism that will increase his party's political advantage and turn back the clock on Wisconsin's public-sector workforce by half a century.

AFL-CIO Now Blog, Sat Mar 26, 2011
Byline: James Parks

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