Wisconsin has been on the front lines of the battles around organized labor for the past 4 1/2 years. In this span Wisconsin has transformed from a relatively peaceful state to one of animosity and conflict. While there are a host of issues that have divided our state, the conflicts about the rights of public employees to organize have been at the center of the struggles since Governor Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature introduced the controversial legislation that drastically altered the climate that public employees had worked in for 50 + years and undid a legacy of Progressivism around labor rights going back over a century.
In this day and age where news stories come and go quickly and our attention spans for issues seem to shorten daily, the staying power of this issue has been impressive. Whether during Walker's short lived presidential bid, in ongoing debates around public education, or recent efforts to change Civil Service protections, public employees rights to organize and advocate for themselves and their professions have been on the radar of many Wisconsinites on a regular basis. Passions still run high, and it doesn't take much to get a storm started when these issues arise.
One of the reasons for this intensity of emotion is the divisive way that the so called reforms were advanced and implemented. This wasn't your typical exercise in democracy that plodded forward through a series of hoops and that involved significant build-up. These changes were proposed suddenly, pushed forward with little real substantive debate and passed in the middle of the night during a storm of controversy and protest. Because of the way this progressed the best way for supporters of the "reforms" to build their case was to create a scapegoat, in this case public employees. Suddenly, teachers and other public servants were vilified and demonized in an effort to cement political and economic power for a small number of individuals.
This was a power grab and one that has left us divided and weakened. Those who have lost their collective bargaining rights mourn the loss. However, it has become clear that the political climate has changed and that public employees, especially educators need to move forward from where we are now. We can look back with fondness at the "good old days" of pre-February 2011, but the reality that we have is the one that we must deal with. Yet at the same time, we can't simply accept this new reality as fixed in stone because it is one that isn't good for the majority of the people in this state, or good for any democratic society where the good of the many should be the primary focus.
The current reality is one where unions, public or private sector, need to take a look at the past to understand how we got to where we are, and then look towards the future. One where they will either evolve (through a process hereby know as evolunion) or become obsolete and go extinct due to member attrition, loss of political power and a loss of financial capital. This occurs as unions are demonized, their power is curtailed through legislation/policy and members are convinced that their unions are either not necessary or actually harmful to their interests.
It seems almost ridiculous to suggest that unions are obsolete, especially given the fact that our economic disparities are at some of the highest levels in our nation's history. Unions are the result of the simple reality that employees need to have a voice in their wages, benefits and working conditions. Without a collective voice each individual worker is left at the mercy of their employer with those who either have a needed skill, connections, or luck rising to the top.
It is no surprise that we are seeing the idea of unions and collective action under attack at the same time we are told that we no longer need protections like Affirmative Action, Voting Rights Laws or other similar defenses against the abuses of the powerful. The idea that individuals will rise through a system to achieve the status that their ability allows is one that sounds reasonable, just as long as the system is fair, and there are equitable ways to determine an individual's worth. Given the fact that our society is a long way from this reality, unions clearly are still a necessary part of our labor landscape.
Given the long history of organized labor protecting and advancing the rights of workers one is left to wonder how we reached the point where a small number of individuals could so effectively undermine some of the most powerful labor organizations in the nation. Wisconsin's public workers have a long history of organizing and have been an active voice in the state for decades. Public educators in Wisconsin, and around the nation, are still the largest of unions. In general public employees have been considered an asset to our state and were respected as important parts of the communities they served.
The simple answer to this is that a budget crisis was created to justify the destruction of collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. We know that times of crisis are times when the climate is ripe for drastic action to be taken. Some of these actions have a positive effect such as FDR's leadership during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, many times crisis brings out the worst in us. The same administration that brought us the New Deal also interned over 100,000 citizens of Japanese descent. Too often we are willing to sacrifice our greater values for short term gains or feelings of safety or vengeance and this was clearly the case in Wisconsin where economic strife and inequity was turned against a small group of people.
Why attack public employees in Wisconsin? The rhetoric from those who supported these "reforms" centered around a need to fix the state's budget crisis. When union leaders agreed to make changes in the ways that pensions were funded and other economic concessions the rhetoric changed to one of ending the power of union bosses and to attacks on the long standing abuses of power by unions in their work with local and state governments. The reasoning given was that these government entities needed legislative support in order to change a system that was supposedly harming our economies and imbalanced in favor of public sector unions. Additional arguments invoked quotes from FDR and essentially stated that the public sector was no place for unions, and that Civil Service laws protected public employees quite well without additional union advocacy.
There is significant evidence that the real reason behind these attacks on collective bargaining had little to do with balancing budgets or strengthening local governmental control. In fact, Governor Walker himself when testifying before Congress admitted that the "reforms" implemented didn't have an economic basis. In reality, Act 10 and the effort to dismantle public sector unions was part of an ongoing effort to eliminate political rivals and to wage a divisive struggle that cemented power in the hands of a single party. Weakening public educator unions allowed for a more intensive assault on public education in an effort to privatize education and reap the profits that entails. It was also a moment created so that Governor Walker could launch himself on to the national scene and begin his run for President.
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m.jsonline.com|By Mary Spicuzza
One might argue that some of my retelling and analysis of these events is biased by the fact that my wife and I are public educators and that my family has been negatively impacted by the changes that have occurred since 2011. There is no doubt that the loss of tens of thousands of dollars from our take home pay has affected my family. There is also no doubt that the changes have resulted in more challenging conditions for us to work in, and for our own children to learn in. But, my displeasure with the actions of the Republican dominated Wisconsin government are not purely personal. The "reforms" implemented in 2011 and expanded over the following years have clearly not achieved what was promised.
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Minnesota is the first union-friendly state with high wages and high taxes to reach the top of CNBC's annual ranking. The North Star state ranks so well in areas...
csmonitor.com|By The Christian Science Monitor
There's Republican economics for ya!
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Few details have emerged about the city of Green Bay’s budget plan for next year, but spending has been steadily rising since Act 10 forced cuts.
greenbaypressgazette.com|By Adam Rodewald
Not only have the "reforms" been ineffective, the very way that they were enacted was questionable.
DIGGING DEEPER: Emails show strong coordination between Walker officials and lobbyists during Act 10
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The public has been mislead about a number of issues and this has resulted in continuing challenges to public employees including potential raiding of our pensions (supposedly to protect the public interest).
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The Civil Service laws that were supposedly more than enough protection for public employees are being challenged as well.
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The Republican proposal would make sweeping changes to the century-old system.
host.madison.com|By Jessie Opoien | The Capital Times
All of the history and the review of current events won't change the fact that Act 10 is the law of the land and that other states have similar laws/policies that have changed the reality that public employees work in. However the law was passed, whatever the impact it has had and whatever the motive was for passing it is in many ways irrelevant. What matters most now is what happens next, and what happens next is in the hands of union leaders, union members and workers across Wisconsin and around the nation.
Central to this is the fact that our public employees are vital to our communities and that they fill roles that must be maintained for our society to function. Public roadways, schools, police, fire and countless other services have been central to our nation's political, social and economic health. Public employees may be portrayed as "enemies of the state" but the fact is that they are not the problem, but rather the solution to the challenges that we face.
This importance of public employees and the services they provide still doesn't answer the questions around their ability to unionize and to bargain collectively with their employers. Some might argue that public employees are important, but that doesn't mean that they should be allowed to form unions. This argument fails to recognize some important realities about what public employees do. I can't speak for all public employees, but can articulate the need for contractual protections for educators.
The best reasons for public educator unions are two fold. First, public educators work in jobs that require us to fill many roles in the lives of our students and their families. We administer medications, keep our students safe, help them access needed services, provide emotional support through trauma, and don't forget, teach them skills and concepts they need to become positive, productive members of society. We know that our diverse student population requires diversity in teaching methods, we know that there are many competing ideas for teaching students, we also know that measuring student progress isn't as simple as many would have us believe. Our students face purchased curricula that may not be the best fit for them, they are overtested and then tested some more, they are subjected to policies that fail to meet their needs or that are not responsive to their culture or community. Given this, it is no wonder that educators are in a position to be strong advocates for their students, families and community. Without protections provided by unions and contracts any educator speaking out for students and against the system faces the consequences of losing their job or more.
The second reason is simple, our teaching conditions are our students learning conditions.
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Unions are, at their heart, the most democratic of structures and ones that have deep roots in our national ideology.
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One thing we can learn from history is that there are patterns and cycles to human behavior. This means that unions will arise again in some form and that we will see the people unite to advance the needs of the collective whole. What we can't afford to do is wait for this to happen. We know that the income gaps in our society are widening, more families are living in poverty, tensions caused by economic stresses increase divisions in society and other problems multiply when the voices of the people are silenced. Eliminating union rights silences people's voices. It is up to all of us to make sure that the needs of the people are heard loudly and clearly.
It may sound like an immense challenge, but we've seen it done many times before. The fact that so many of our public and private unions are continuing their struggle gives us a framework to use in our efforts. What it takes is an active and engaged population that is informed about the issues of importance to them. Unions can provide this information and organizing strength. In fact, it is vital to the long term health of our nation that unions find a way to regain their status in the political, social and economic realms of our society.
Public educator unions are providing some of the blueprints for successful evolunionizing. We have to remember that unions arose when workers united and actively engaged in tactics that forced employers to take notice. Unions were not some vague concept, but rather a real entity made up of colleagues who wanted the respect and dignity they deserved. They had their roots in a sense of social justice and forged links that went beyond economic causes and spoke to a deeper set of values. Today's unions can return to this and provide opportunities for members to connect more deeply with their communities and forge stronger links within our society.
Guaranteed recess for all elementary school students is one of them. Here are the others.
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