It’s About Control
October 29, 2011

ANNAPOLIS, MD - MARCH 14: School teacher Marcu...

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One of the great myths of public employee union busting is that budget shortfalls made it necessary. States need to eliminate collective bargaining, the story goes, because otherwise intransigent unions will hold their budgets hostage. If AFSCME, UFT and all the rest have the power to bargain on behalf of the state’s employees, they’ll block any attempt to make cuts in wages and benefits — and if that happens, then the state will instead be forced to lay people off.

If you want to know how that story plays out in the real world, take a look at Ohio. The Buckeye State recently gutted public employee collective bargaining, theoretically leaving the town of Lancaster with the means to preserve its’ firefighters jobs. Guess what? The town’s still shedding staff.

But what really deepens the absurdity here is that those same firefighters, back when they still had their collective bargaining rights, were eager to work with the state to resolve its budget issues:

“I don’t think Senate Bill 5 could have prevented this; these firefighters were going to be laid off,” Kraner said. “But it will effect our take-home pay, and basically not give us a voice in manning issues; it gives all the power to management. It would cause more lay-offs.”

Kraner said the law, if kept on the books, would be bad for “everybody in Ohio.” The law prohibits unions from bargaining for minimum staffing (PDF).

“And the last three years we went from a 22-man minimum to a 16-man minimum,” said Kraner. “That was part of the concessions our union made.”

Other concessions made in Lancaster include turning down pay raises they were contractually owed last year in an attempt to prevent layoffs. New firefighters in Lancaster make around $38,000 per year, and can earn up to the $70,000s as an officer.

You might remember hearing something similar in Wisconsin during their collective bargaining fight. Wisconsin public employees were willing to accept deep benefit cuts in order to preserve their rights, but Walker and Wisconsin Republicans rejected their concessions out of hand.

What this should tell you is that the assault on public employee collective bargaining is only incidentally about money. It’s really about control. The public sector of our economy is one of the last strongholds where America’s working class has any say at all in how its own labor is managed. To the Republican Party — and a significant chunk of the Democratic Partyany worker self-determination is unacceptable.

Ignore the cant about wages, benefits and budgets. The labor struggle today is about the same thing it’s always been about: freedom and control. Do you own any of your own labor? Or does it all belong to the 1%?

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February 21, 2011

I’m late to the party here. Not sure what else can be said. But I’ll say this much: what initially galled me so much about Governor Walker’s actions isn’t that he tried to eviscerate one of the few remaining instruments Wisconsin’s public employees had for making their interests heard. It’s that he was so blatant about it. A smoother operator likely could have effectively marginalized the state’s public unions without overextending himself and causing a ruckus.

But overextend himself we did, and now we’re being treated to the curious spectacle of American middle-class workers rebelling against the further concentration of political and economic power around an oligarchical elite. They’re resisting in public. How weird is that? I think I read about it in a book once.

I’d gotten used to thinking of America’s stumbling descent into neo-feudalism as a sort of historical inevitability, and perhaps it is yet. But “historical inevitability” is too grand a term to be anything but an abstraction, something for future historians and political theorists to scratch their heads over. It doesn’t do justice to the effect this is having on real people who live in this country right now. Living the privileged yuppie existence I do, it’s been all too easy to think about the systematic brutalization of the less lucky in purely academic, theoretical terms. Recent events in Wisconsin have caused these matters to take on a certain tactile, visceral immediacy.

To put it in less flowery language: recent events have lit a fire under my ass. I hope you feel that same fire under yours. Because historical inevitability or no, I know future me would sleep a lot easier knowing I’d kept fighting until there wasn’t a single square foot of ground left to fight on.

Where to start? Well, you might consider ordering some hungry folks a pizza.

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