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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 2.24.11

Whats at Stake

Wisconsin showdown is over civil rights

By Bob Bussel

Lets stipulate from the outset that Wisconsin is not Egypt, Madison is not Cairo, and Scott Walker is not Hosni Mubarak. Nonetheless, the Wisconsin governors proposal to curtail collective bargaining rights for most of his states public employees is a profoundly disturbing act that disrespects workers rights, threatens economic recovery and violates important democratic principles.

Lets be clear about the real motivations behind Gov. Walkers actions. Emboldened by their triumphs in the midterm elections and using state budget deficits as a pretext, conservatives are now poised, in Grover Norquists notorious formulation, to realize their long-held dream of reducing government "to the size where they can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” In contrast to the largely nonunion private sector, public employee unions still have the resources to mount effective political and ideological resistance to this radical agenda. By gutting public employees collective bargaining and representational rights, Walker and other Republican governors would remove a formidable remaining obstacle to the right-wings master plan to weaken public institutions and allow private entities to assume greater responsibility for providing vital social services.

Hence the consistent use by conservatives of skewed statistics to portray public employees, among them teachers, correctional officers, and child-care workers, as a "new privileged class” whose outsized wages and benefits are responsible for our economic woes rather than sharp revenue losses incurred by the most profound economic crisis since the Great Depression. By turning public employees into pariahs and pitting private and public sector workers against each other, the political right deflects attention from its unwillingness to tackle the true sources of our social and fiscal distress: the financial industrys reckless speculation that brought us to the brink of economic collapse, the continuing outsourcing of American jobs, a tax code that allows many businesses to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, and stagnant wages that rob our economy of the consumer purchasing power it needs to fuel economic recovery.

We also need to recognize the indispensable social and economic role that collective bargaining plays and what we stand to lose if Wisconsin and other states limit its operation in the public sector. In the U.S., government is not required to provide many of the social benefits (health care, vacations, sick leave, pensions) that most of us would agree are needed for a decent and secure life. It was only through collective bargaining in the private and later the public sector that many Americans began to obtain greater access to these benefits and upgrade the quality of their lives. Here in Oregon, we saw this most dramatically when home health and child-care workers, who look after some of our most vulnerable populations, gained improved wages, health insurance and enhanced dignity through the collective bargaining process.

Indeed, collective bargaining has boosted the purchasing power of workers, provided ongoing economic stimulus, enabled millions of Americans to gain admission to the middle class, and provided them with an effective voice in shaping their working conditions. When Wisconsin Senate Majority leader Scott Fitzgerald laments that "everything from workplace safety to some of the egregious items that are part of collective bargaining now in Wisconsin has a fiscal piece to it,” he is asserting (falsely) that public sector collective bargaining is a luxury we can no longer afford. Instead, what he, Walker, and their conservative allies offer is a continuing race to the bottom and a return to darker times in our history when the lack of strong unions and effective collective bargaining made us less democratic, less fair, and less free.

Just as we were inspired by the struggle to gain democracy in Egypt, we must defend democracy in Wisconsin and give full-throated support to public employees fighting to maintain collective bargaining as a democratic necessity and a social good. The right to band together with ones fellow workers and negotiate wages, hours, and working conditions with employers, be they public or private, is a fundamental civil right that distinguishes democracies from authoritarian regimes. We relinquish it at our peril.

Bob Bussel is associate professor of history and directs the Labor Education and Research Center at the UO.