Flipping through the interwebs tonight, I came across all of the breaking news stories about the passage of the bill to remove collective bargaining rights from state workers in Wisconsin. And now, looking over at my Twitter feed, it’s lit up like I haven’t seen with arguments and anger and joy over what has happened.
I’ve got to admit to a great deal of disappointment here on many fronts, and disappointment is the right word, trust me. But I’ll get to that in a minute. You need to know this first: I’m not a huge fan of unions. What started out as groups meant to better working conditions, pay and benefits for (mostly) blue-collar laborers has largely turned more and more into organizations wielding huge political power and seeking to influence the political process more than they watch out for their membership. That being said, though, that initial work that unions did helped everyone who has ever had a job: minimum wage, health benefits, pensions and retirement plans have primarily been the result of the work that unions have done in securing those benefits for their employees. And I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have to pay full price for their doctor’s office visit appreciates that.
So back to Wisconsin: the state, like so many others, including Minnesota, is facing an incredibly difficult financial problem, and it’s a problem that doesn’t have any easy answer. And thanks to the backlash against the Democratic plans and relative inaction in fixing the economy over the last two years, the Republicans now have control in most states to try their hand at the issue.
Meanwhile, the political air in the country has been poisoned by all sides: the conservatives hate everything and everyone liberal and refuse to even listen to that side because of their deep belief that all liberal ideas are crap; the liberals do the same thing in reverse; and moderates are hated by both sides because they’re the only ones who seem to be simultaneously thinking independently and making sense. The end result is that the discourse that is supposedly the hallmark of our democracy has been destroyed in the name of sound bytes, talking points, and showing the world how evil and stupid the opposition is.
We’ve all heard the arguments for so long now that it’s getting nauseating. In Wisconsin, the governor approached the budget by first cutting some basic costs to government–not a bad response, really. But his first target is to attack the unionized public employees of the state. Sure, their pensions, benefits and even pay may be a contributing factor to the budget crisis, but the persistent argument of business leaders in the private sector (many of whom are conservatives, it should be noted) is that you need to make your pay and benefits competitive to attract and keep quality employees. So why shouldn’t government adopt the same approach?
I seem to have missed the moment when public employees became villains. But for every argument that wages in the public sector are higher, I think I could probably come up with a good illustration on the other end: I’ve never encountered a rich teacher, or a teacher who didn’t actually have to spend some of their own money for school supplies, and I had a father who, while not a union member, was a professor at a public university…And God knows we weren’t wealthy. I’ll add that in the course of years of job hunting, I’ve never seen a job at my level with the same level of pay. At least not in Minnesota. And a cursory search across the Google finds that we help desk types are pretty underpaid by state governments. I hope they get it made up for in benefits.
The problem in the budget debate is that both sides want to redistribute wealth, but the problem is the approach: the Democrats want government to do it by taking from the top and giving it back to the lower classes; and the Republicans want to just let it happen naturally, which hasn’t traditionally been shown to be possible in the past, because people with money just want to amass more money.
So my disappointment with the Wisconsin model for this non-debate: all three sides–Republicans, Democrats and unions–have failed everyone they represent. The Republicans rammed their ideology through government without once appearing apologetic or genuinely concerned for those they were about to hurt. Everyone knew that the issue is difficult, so why aren’t we all talking to resolve things fairly for everyone? Meanwhile, the Democrats ran away, which was funny for the first couple of days, but then it just became sad because they turned all of the attention away from their point: which should have been that things were being done without due process. Instead, they’ve simply illustrated that you don’t achieve much when you run away from your problems. And the unions missed every opportunity along the way: they’re yelling loud not and occupying buildings, but where was the same passion one, two, or four years ago? Why weren’t they offering concessions at the start of the problems instead of this far in when the options are considerably more limited?
The root cause to all of these things by all sides is simple: power, money and politics. I’m sad and angered that this was passed tonight. I’m sad that no Democrats were there to challenge it in face of the odds that they wouldn’t be successful. I’m sad that the unions feel the need to occupy the seat of government in Wisconsin. But moreover, it’s incredibly sad that all of this gets illustrated so vividly in the end by a group of Senators performing what amounts to an end-around of the lawmaking process in passing what they wanted in the first place without any discussion at all. It’s incredibly sad that the people who are yelling loudest that “the people” have demanded they fix the problem, are also the ones who have ceased listening to the people to find out what we want them to do.
A piece of democracy, of civility, and of common sense died tonight…And really, for what purpose did it die? I’m afraid we’ll never get it back.
See you tomorrow.