Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill effectively dismantles over 50 years of public sector collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. While bill supporters have obscured the reasons that hundreds of thousands have been protesting (acting as if the controversy is really about pension and healthcare contributions rather than union-busting, and claiming the fiscal gaps exacerbated by Walker's tax cuts leave the state with no choice but to crush unions), others recognize the attack on collective bargaining rights but nonetheless support it as applied to taxpayer-funded public servants. Should public sector workers be allowed to organize?
But it's Our Money!
Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post writes in support of Walker's union-crushing move, claiming that public sector unions prohibit "voters and their elected representatives [from having] the final say in how the state spends its money." The Chicago Tribune editorial board makes similar comments. These statements assume that top levels of government bureaucracy are particularly effective and wise, an assertion contrary to the right-wing view of centralized government as inherently inept and ineffective. They oversimplify and perhaps ignore that real human beings necessarily stand between an expenditure and the implementation of a government service.
When we decide government will pursue a certain public interest goal -- say, keeping the streets plowed after a snowstorm, teaching children how to read, or keeping lakes stocked with fish -- there are several steps we must take to get there. We need money, of course, and government budget offices help the legislature determine how much needs to be allocated. We need guidelines, and the legislature will pass a general set of directives that are often implemented by an agency, who will then adopt more specific rules for how to reach the goal. The most important step in implementation, though, are the people hired to actually do the work.
Workplace Democracy in Action
These workers (otherwise known as public employees) will be most effective when they are allowed space to share ideas and to have a voice in the workplace. They are not automatons that must do the bidding of their government employer simply because the bureaucrat in charge is spending taxpayer dollars; they are human beings who retain the option to leave for private sector employment, and who can have important insight into how their jobs can be done most effectively. Collective bargaining is not just about wages, but about giving employees a democratic voice in the workplace. As President John F. Kennedy once said, "our labor unions ... have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor."
Teaching children, for example, is not an exact science, and educators need flexibility to try new things, the space for sharing successes and failures in a process of mutual learning, and the right to bargain with administrators over the tools and conditions (like class size) they need to be most effective. Absent collective bargaining, decisions about teaching conditions will be made by administrators or bureaucrats separated from on-the-ground reality. Collective bargaining serves a similar purpose in other situations. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) personnel need to have a say in how they stock fish (in order to support the $2.75 billion dollar sport fishing industry that supports more than 30,000 Wisconsin jobs), and the flexibility to adapt their techniques to particular situations and communicate issues with supervisors (say, to prevent viral hemorrhagic septicemia). Snowplow drivers need to have input into their job conditions, like when a driver can take breaks during a long night of clearing roads, or how days-off should be allocated to avoid exhaustion. A bureaucrat cannot anticipate the challenges that employees implementing public services will face, and without worker input, cannot know how to structure the terms and conditions of employment so public workers can do their jobs safely and effectively. To think otherwise requires an astonishing level of faith in the wisdom of bureaucrats.
While citizens are likely against teachers, cops, snowplow drivers, or others going on strike, they are missing the point: collective bargaining is designed to prevent strikes by encouraging cooperation and peaceful resolution of workplace disputes. Miles Turner, the head of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators (the "management" with whom teacher's unions negotiate) told the Capitol Times that losing collective bargaining would dramatically change what has been a peaceful working relationship between administrators and teachers, saying it would change what is "an understanding between management and labor about how things will work;” with the changes, he said, "it would be a problematic environment. If there is no union, could a principal walk into a classroom and tell a teacher that they will be teaching 10 more classes? . . . We are not going to keep our best and brightest if that happens." Indeed Wisconsin has had not had a public employee strike for 30 years. When employees are not permitted to have a seat at the negotiation table, a strike becomes their sole option, and only now that bargaining rights are under attack are strikes even being considered.
"I am a man."
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1965, he was in Memphis supporting African American public employees striking against the city's refusal to recognize their union; the signs they held had the simple message "I am a man." As Dr. King said the night before his tragic death, "whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth." None of this is to say that some union organizations may promote their organization's self-interest, or sometimes protect employees who deserve to be discharged, but the statement that public sector employees are mere conduits for taxpayer money, and that their banding together prohibits "voters and their elected representatives [from having] the final say in how the state spends its money" is a pretty cold assessment of the flesh-and-blood that make government services happen. Even if the Chicago Tribune and some Washington Post writers oppose public sector unions, Dr. King recognized that, throughout history, "the labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress," and while the Koch brothers may be behind today's attack on working people, Dr. King told us over forty years ago that "the captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome." Wisconsin may be at the vanguard of a new effort towards transformation and progress, and though no fight is easy, here's hoping they too shall overcome.
This article was updated with the Miles Turner quotes at 9:00pm CST on February 23