What’s at Stake in Wisconsin

When the riots in Tunisia began I went out into the streets and shouted, “Today we are all Tunisians.”

“Right on,” a middle-aged guy with a Keith Richards face shouted back.

When the riots in Egypt started I went out into the streets and shouted, “Today we are all Egyptians.”

A little old lady in galoshes flashed me the peace sign.

When the Bahrain riots started I yelled, “We are all Bahraini,” but all I got was funny looks.

Same when I announced common cause with the demonstrations in Libya, Yemen, and Morocco: more funny looks, along with a rude gesture or two.

But when government workers and their supporters in Madison, Wisconsin protested and I ran out to yell, “We are all Madisonians,” some people began to boo and hiss, and that little old lady threw a dead rat at me.

Unions aren’t as popular as they used to be. Once hailed as champions of the working class, for some Americans–including a majority of Republicans–they have become symbols of goldbricking and greed.

Unions have been accused of everything from driving jobs overseas to bankrupting state and local governments and–to a large degree–the charges have stuck.

Unions brought some of it on themselves. In an effort to protect jobs of members in an ever-more automated world, they negotiated work rules (like “featherbedding” in railroads and “bogus type” in the printing trade) that increased labor costs without improving productivity.

I suppose the shot that started the avalanche was President Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the air traffic controllers union. That union attempted to hold the nation’s air traffic hostage to their demand for higher wages. But Reagan, acting boldly, grabbed them by the scruff of the neck and threw them into the middle of the street.

He fired all striking workers and ran the system with supervisors, strikebreakers, and amateurs until the new hires could be brought up to speed. I’ve always wondered what would have happened had we suffered a mid-air collision during those first few dangerous months. But the Gipper’s luck held and there were no accidents.

The episode put the fear of God into unions, however, and they’ve faced headwinds ever since.

That’s a shame because, for all their flaws, unions did bring a measure of democracy and justice into the workplace and made it possible for working stiffs to lead a middle-class lifestyle and have middleclass dreams for their children.

The American people don’t seem to see things that way. Most of us think of ourselves more as consumers than as workers.

Thus, things that are good for workers, like high wages, are widely viewed as bad because they lead to higher prices, hurting consumers.

The hostility toward public unions is even more pronounced since the general public is the entity paying the higher wages and benefits.

Make no mistake about it: the attack on the public service unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana is the first volley in an all-out war by conservatives on all unions. If they succeed at destroying them, they’ll have eliminated the last great countervailing force against the political power of corporations in this country.

Now I’m not a great believer in the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Hey, we’re Americans, right? Conspiracies are for Europe. Or Hillary Clinton.

But if there were such a conspiracy, it would conspire to appoint a Supreme Court that would rule that corporations and unions can spend virtually unlimited amounts on elections.

Then it would destroy the unions.

And then it would spend and spend and spend on elections and get really stupid people elected, people who would do its bidding.

Aren’t we lucky that there is no Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy?

I didn’t like being a Bahraini anyway.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. www.otherwords.org