Wisconsin is Ground Zero for Your Future
Save the badgers! When unions go bust, middle class follows
By John F. Wasik (Reuters)
Author, The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome
We are all Wisconsin badgers now. If collective bargaining goes, forget about personal economic progress for middle class Americans.
The huge demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, over the union-busting proposal of Gov. Scott Walker have impact on us all. Ditto that for similar moves in other states like Ohio and Indiana.
There’s something deeper and more malignant in efforts to strip public employee unions of collective bargaining. They are the last bulwark of organized labor in the U.S. Corporate interests want them crushed and are using budget deficits as a sledge hammer. That’s also the rallying cry of the majority of the GOP-dominated House, which voted to de-fund the National Labor Relations Board.
It’s an age-old saga: labor vs. capital. In the case of Wisconsin, the real plot wasn’t a concerted effort to reduce a state budget deficit. The state was in the black until the Governor insisted on corporate tax cuts.
Public-sector workers are actually willing to compromise on contributing more to their retirement and healthcare. Walker’s all-or-nothing proposal wanted to eliminate their ability to collectively bargain. It was clear from his caudillo attitude that he wanted to bust the unions.
Walker’s union animus is fed by the money that flowed into his campaign coffers. The politically regressive Koch Brothers, whose companies include Georgia Pacific, donated more than $43,000 to Walker’s campaign.
The Koch Brothers’ various interests in Wisconsin also would benefit from no-bid sales of state assets, which was conveniently inserted in Walker’s “budget repair” bill. A spokesman for Koch Industries denied that the company would benefit.
A prank call further revealed the iron-fisted tactics Walker was willing to employ to crush the unions. Corporate money can be freely used as a cudgel against unions under the wretched “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling. Business interests can donate unlimited amounts to political campaigns and pursue their anti-labor agendas unheeded.
I have a sense of what it was like before labor-backed social benefits of Social Security and Medicare didn’t exist. Old-age poverty was rampant. Maybe you didn’t go to the doctor when you left the workforce. You couldn’t afford it. Life was indeed nasty, brutish and short, to quote Thomas Hobbes.
Without unions, it’s a divide and conquer world where each of us become weak private contractors — if we can even get to the bargaining table without getting fired. Benefits will continue to erode and communities will suffer. There’s not much left to unionized America as it is — 88 percent of the workforce is not represented through collective bargaining.
Then there are the vaunted fringe benefits that most of the labor force enjoyed at one time and now are the envy of most white-collar workers chafing at puny 401(k) balances. Defined-benefit pensions used to guarantee a monthly retirement payment for the rest of your life. In 1980, two-thirds of American workers had this great coverage.
Now most Americans are scared to death they won’t have enough money in their 401(k)s, which corporate America adores because it contributes so little, loads up with excessive vendor fees and doesn’t guarantee. Employers don’t have to offer a 401(k) at all or even put money in them. Here’s your lump sum, good luck!
America was a prosperous nation under the forced savings of defined benefit plans. Now we borrow for everything, although that won’t work for retirement. Only one-in-five workers get old-style guaranteed pensions now. Most of them are in the public services or old industrial companies.
I’m not saying that given this age of diminished expectations and global competition that public employees can’t contribute more to their own health and retirement plans. They have said that they will and they understand the new reality.
But you don’t confront working people by first smashing the bargaining table and telling them they can hit the bricks if they don’t like it. That’s so 19th century and smacks of robber barony. We’ve come too far to sink into corporate feudalism.