I have been working on this post all morning, took a break to go to church and heard a message from this lady pastor I know that convinced me even more that this was something I need to say. So, thanks, Lisa, for encouraging me with your word today.
America's eyes are turned right now just north of where I'm sitting. Recently elected Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party favorite, has decided the best way to balance that state's finances isn't accepting concessions from state workers. Rather, the best way to straighten out that state's fiscal mess is to break the public employees unions. The unions had already accepted the concessions that were initially asked for; after all, they know the state of Wisconsin's finances. Walker, however, refuses to budge on the nonsequitur of destroying union representation for public employees.
This is perhaps the most important moment for American labor in over a generation. Since Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981, the war against organized labor has been on multiple fronts, with unions always seeming to come out the loser.. Current union representation in the private workforce is around 8%. Most workers, particularly in the low-wage service sector, work under the threat of losing their jobs for even mentioning the possibility of organizing their workplaces. New employees are fed tales of union perfidy. Most everyone I know can tell a story, whether they have actually experienced it or not, of union employees doing no actual work, yet getting paid huge wages. These stories, along with the double-edged sword of stories of evil-bad unions taking worker's hard-earned money and the threat of termination for even saying the word "union" have kept much of the biggest fresh-field of labor organization clear of unions.
A week ago, I was still troubled by the thought of expressing any opinion on the events in Wisconsin. My experience in Virginia of outsiders interfering in state matters gave me an allergy to any kind of interference in matters that are confined to particular states. I am convicted and convinced, however, that remaining silent is no longer an option. For far too long we have listened to the voices of those who say that organized labor is the enemy of prosperity. For far too long, we have been fed the lie that the market, freed from the heavy hand of state regulation and the private check of workplace organization is the magic bullet for the general welfare. We have been told the state demands taxes to pay for services for the few; that unions take a piece of our wages to fatten the wallets of union staff, leaving the workers no further ahead than they have been.
These are the same voices, really. They are the voices of those who see economic and political democracy as a threat, not so much to their rights, as to their pocketbooks. Social welfare, whether guaranteed by the state, or fought and won by American workers joined together hammering out contracts with employers, are declared the enemy of prosperity. We are told by these voices that legislation for general betterment, or workplace organization for better working conditions and higher wages, are, of a piece, a threat to the magic bullet of a market freed from restraint. Prosperity comes from on high, running down to all, if only the heavy hand of the state and the antagonistic hand of organized labor would stand to one side.
What has heeding these voices brought us but social misery and the very real threat of physical and social collapse? What have these prophets of the freedom of the rich and powerful ever granted to the public out of their largess? It was public works that brought us everything from state and national parks that are the envy of the world, to local post offices and schools to our interstate highway system. It was union labor that made the steel that union labor made in to automobiles. Later in our history, it was unionized steel factories that fed the unionized auto plants that had been retooled, by organized tool and dye workers, to build the military machine that defeated fascism. It was organized labor, with its generous wages and benefits, that provided the economic demand that fed the post-war boom, providing for an explosion of general wealth and prosperity, the shift from urban to suburban living, and an increase in health and prosperity that spread across the land.
Yet, for nearly forty years now, we have been told that unions bring nothing to those they represent. We are told that the government of the greatest country in the world is the opponent of social prosperity and welfare. We are told, right now at this moment in our national life, that we must settle for less - less money, less service, less hope for the immediate future. We are told that we the workers must sacrifice so that our employers can stay in business, keep making profits.
Again, I ask, what have we gained by listening to these voices? We have a choice to make right now. Do we, as a people, continue to listen to those voices that, having already brought us to the brink of disaster, need to be heard again and that this time, they will be right? Or do we listen to those who reach deep in to our collective life and memory and remind us that we, the people, the workers, have made this country. We have made the steel and the cars and the roads and staffed the shops and stores. We have asked that our country be made better, first by connecting canals and railroads, then later national roads, then finally interstate highways. We have asked that no one work under the constant threat of arbitrary management, in unsafe conditions, for a wage that does not provide even the basic necessities of life.
So, right now, at this moment, we are being asked to choose. To whom do we listen? Do we listen to the advocates of fear, the prophets of failure? Or do we all join together and listen to our own voices demanding that ours be a land of hope, of promise, even prosperity again, a prosperity that recognizes that it is we the people who make the wealth by making the goods and providing the services that keep our country going?
To who will you listen? To those who insist it cannot be done? Or will you listen to your own voice, in chorus with so many others, who insist it will be done?