Issue #26- September 25, 2011
In this issue:
*Civil Servants- Enemies of the State
*The Attack on the American Dream
What's Uplifting, Union Building…
It is a difficult and discouraging time to be a public sector union member in Wisconsin. Over the next couple of weeks we will see the official end of many public unions. We will get to hear the conservatives celebrate their victory with hateful rhetoric. Just read the comments after this article.
On a personal level my family will see the effects of the pay cuts imposed by the Budget Repair Bill for the first time (although many public employees have already felt the sting for several months).
I can feel the climate change at my school. The start of a school year is always stressful and the ongoing political situation here in Wisconsin doesn't help. It is sad to talk to so many high quality teachers who are questioning whether they will continue in the profession once our contract expires in 2013. The mood is one where educators are simply waiting to see what the next attack will look like. We are wondering how we will muster up the energy to teach our students and fight the injustices being forced upon us. We see the future of our profession as the districts around our state create employee handbooks filled with rules and regulations that don't improve educational opportunities for students. Instead these handbooks lay out bureaucratic layers that make it easier for districts to impose political agendas instead of educational reforms.
This attitude of despair increases in isolation. One of the important things that a union provides is a sense of community. It is that sense of being a part of a larger whole and working for a greater good that gives people hope for their future. It is this sense of purpose that drives us to continue the fight.
However, the truth is that the field of public education has not ever been a lucrative one for the everyday employee. We've always made enough to do ok, but it's never been a profession where one becomes exceedingly wealthy. Now with the losses in income imposed by the Walker legislation the economic reality is much different. These losses combined with the ever increasing workload make the time and money necessary for organizing a scarce commodity.
In my opinion that makes the collective energy found in union participation even more vital than ever. Alone we will lose, but together victory is possible. The future is uncertain and filled with obstacles. Yet in many ways that has always been true, the obstacles are just more visible now. The challenges are great, but the potential for success is also tremendous. Because of the wide sweeping and aggressive nature of the attacks by the Walker administration there has never been a time in recent memory where the battle lines are so clearly drawn.
Anytime we are faced with large, long term challenges the difficulty usually lies in how to get started solving the problems. I've written about many different ways that unions and individuals can be involved in the struggle along with the many things that unions need to do to build solidarity among their members. Now that we are beginning a new phase in the ongoing struggle it seems clear that we need to organize our efforts to be most effective and to have the greatest impact.
There are three major areas where I feel unions need to focus their initial efforts this school year. Because I am a union rep. in my building I will share the goals that I have for my specific school as examples.
Identifying Goals- It is always difficult to define specific goals, especially when faced with such large challenges, but having short term, measurable goals that lead to a larger objective are vital. Without these it is difficult to build a sense of accomplishment and it becomes easy to feel discouraged.
The goals that I've set for the start of the year in my building are:
*Develop ways to communicate effectively. People in my school need to be able to talk to me and to each other about issues that need to be addressed.
*Establish a union presence by meeting with all staff members and letting them know who they can go to if they have issues or concerns. At the same time I get to hear if there are issues that we need to focus on specifically for our school.
*Take care of the "business" of the start of the year and get organized.
Build Unity- Without a sense of unity a union becomes a collection of individuals and the strength of the community is wasted.
*By talking to each person they can get to know and trust me a little more.
*Develop ideas for ways we can socialize and become more comfortable with each other.
Demonstrate Effectiveness and Usefulness- People support a winner and support an organization that provides them with things that they need. If a union isn't effective or useful, no one will want to be a member. Seems pretty obvious.
*I've been reminding my fellow staff members of the successes we've had as a union over the past year.
*We also are remembering ways that we have supported each other through the challenges (personally and professionally) of the recent past.
*Emphasize that the success of the movement comes from individuals offering their skills and knowledge in creative ways. It can't be overstated, the power of the union movement comes from its members and their dedication and energy.
Enemy of the State,
The Civil Service…
Over the past months the struggle between political and economic philosophies has intensified to the point where terms like "class warfare" are certainly applicable. With any type of "war" an enemy must exist to unite groups of people so that they will make the commitment to winning the conflict.
It is clear that the feelings of "us vs. them" are on the rise in Wisconsin. So who are the designated enemies in this battle?
The answer of course is the public employee. While you hear lots of lip service from Scott Walker and his supporters that they really don't dislike public workers (it's just those nasty public employee unions they hate), it is pretty difficult to make a case that the civil servants of Wisconsin have not been targeted as the cause of most of the "crisis" in the state budget. The image of the public employee that is portrayed by conservatives is one of a lazy, incompetent group of people who are content to feed off the work done by honest citizens.
In fact, Walker and his followers would have us believe that our state would be better off if we cut public service positions to the barest of minimal levels. At an extreme, some conservatives even run for office with the platform of dismantling the very position that they are running for. This is all part of the agenda that believes in a "free market" without government "interference". Public employees represent an obstacle to these ideals. These civil servants do nasty mean things like enforce regulations that restrict industries ability to pollute our environment.
It seems clear that by attacking public workers rights and benefits there is a conscious effort to make these jobs less desirable. If fewer people want to work in the public sector then it is easier to dismantle the system. Also by making people work harder in less tolerable conditions the employees are less able to do their jobs at a high level. Then their "poor" performance becomes another mode of attack for conservatives. Public education is a clear example of this type of action. By taking funding away from the schools, increasing the "accountability" of teachers (can 100% of students ever be proficient at their grade level based on chronological age?) and changing work conditions (new employee handbooks) the attack on public education moves into high gear.
Walker and his supporters would have us believe that public workers are overreacting to the "modest" changes that have been enacted. They argue that the small cost to public workers will benefit society as a whole and are a necessary burden for the civil servants to bear. So why should we worry about the changes in our laws regarding public employees. There are a number of reasons.
First, the current administration has demonstrated a level of patronage that reminds one of the not so glorious past.
A brief look at public employees over the course of history shows a constant battle in how to fill the positions necessary to make government run. The current Wikipedia definition of civil service includes the phrase "based on professional merit proven by competitive examination" as the way these employees are chosen. However, that isn't always an accurate picture and certainly hasn't been the way positions have been filled throughout history. This trip through the history of civil service is important given the current situation we find ourselves in. Remember, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."
The idea of a type of examination and a set criteria for employment dates back to the Han Dynasty (220 B.C. to 220 A.D.) in China. However, it is clear that positions in most societies were filled in other ways. The most common were to either inheritance or through some type of patronage system.
In the United States there has been a constant back and forth between the patronage system and a system of organized examinations with set criteria for employment and advancement. The benefits of the latter system are quite clear, but people in power often resist or modify the system to reward their supporters. The ability to give out positions with good pay and benefits is one that adds to the power of elected officials and needs to be controlled for several reasons. These reasons have been made very clear over our nation's history.
At the Federal level we have seen the benefits of a structured civil service system and the difficulties that the spoils system creates. Our early history showed leaders who chose their appointments based on a "Fitness Test" where a person's qualifications trumped their political leanings. For example, John Quincy Adams stated, "No changes (in bureaucratic positions) for political reasons".
However, as time passed political party affiliation and other "qualifications" began to become the criteria for hiring public employees. By the 1820's the slide into a system where each election brought massive changes to the governmental positions was beginning. Political leanings and activities became the norm for hiring civil servants (It's not what you know, but who you know).
Andrew Jackson was a leader who firmly believed that, not only was a patronage system natural, but it actually benefitted the nation. He is quoted as saying, "I cannot but believe that more is lost by the long continuance of men in office than is generally gained by their experience." He also believed that the jobs that civil servants do were not overly difficult and that, "duties of all public offices are, or at least admit of being made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance."Not everyone agreed with Jackson and others who supported his thinking. There were many reasons for their dissatisfaction with the patronage system. For example, corruption was rampant in government. Samual Swartwout, Collector of the Port of New York, somehow misplaced $210,000 while working during Jackson's tenure in office. Despite that, President Van Buren thought him qualified to hold a government job. Swartwout eventually left the U.S. for Europe with over $1.2 million in public money. Any historian who has read about the Civil War knows the damage that the patronage system did to the Union Army and its leadership.
Teddy Roosevelt spoke about the patronage system in the late 1800's and said, "The spoils system was more fruitful of degradation in our political life than any other that could have possibly been invented. The spoils monger, the man who peddled patronage, inevitably bred the vote-buyer, the vote-seller, and the man guilty of misfeasance in office."
In 1871 a law was passed to make some reforms in the hiring practices of the government, but enforcement of the law wasn't funded by Congress. However, support for reform continued to build. The assassination of President Garfield in 1881 by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled office seeker, brought the dangers of the patronage system to full light. By 1882 the Pendleton Act had been passed and stronger reforms were on the way.
Most of the reforms that followed centered on a few main points:
*Classifications of job positions into groups and grades
*Competitive examinations for hiring and promotions
*Probationary periods for employees
*Creation of oversight boards or commissions to control hiring/firing and promotions
*Defining "just cause" for employee discipline or termination
As our country grew and the government's roles became more complex, the civil service grew as well. More positions were added and more responsibilities were undertaken. However, the ideas from the reforms of the late 1800's were maintained as valuable and even vital to a successful government.
Over the past months we have heard a lot about the Wisconsin tradition of public service. It is true that our state has had a long history of high standards for our public employees. In 1905 Robert La Follette signed WI Statute Chapter 363 creating the civil service system. His belief was that, "The fundamental idea of democracy is that all men are equal before the law. What proposition is plainer than that every citizen should have an equal opportunity to aspire to serve the public, and that when he does so aspire the only testapplied should be that of merit? Any other test is undemocratic. To say that the test of party service should be applied is just as undemocratic as it would be to apply the test of birth or wealth or religion." Wisconsin was only the 3rd state to create a system like this one and the legislation grew out of a history similar to that of the national one where graft, patronage and corruption were rampant.
The statute signed by La Follette created two categories of public servant. The Unclassified employee which included elected officers, public school teachers and other positions which were not covered by the act. The Classified employees were covered by the act and needed to take examinations for hiring and promotion purposes.
Civil service legislation in Wisconsin has come under attack many times since the early 1900's. By 1943 there had been over 140 documented attempts to amend or kill the civil service legislation. These attacks included efforts to exempt groups of jobs from the control of the Bureau of Personnel, efforts to eliminate the legislation all together and other attempts to alter different aspects of the laws governing the civil service. Some efforts were even made to place the Bureau of Personnel under the direct control of the governor, sound familiar?
In 1967 the State Employment Labor Relations Act was passed and gave public sector unions the right to collectively bargain on specific subjects. These areas included grievance procedures, seniority rights and other non-monetary issues. These rules were amended in 1970 by the Governor's Advisory Committee and wages, hours and conditions of employment became mandatory bargaining topics in the 1971 legislation that passed. Other changes have followed, but the basic premise of the civil service laws have remained the same. To provide for a prescribed and orderly way to employ people in the positions needed to run our government.
Many public sector unions like AFSCME and AFT either got their start or gained significant strength in Wisconsin over the years. They were able to bargain for rights and gained benefits like the 40 hour work week for their members. Because of the efforts of these unions strong institutions like the Wisconsin Retirement System were formed. Many historians speak about the strong commitment Wisconsin has had to its civil servants and the benefits that this commitment has given our state.
With the passage of Act 10 and the conditions and restrictions placed on public sector unions by the legislation Wisconsin civil servants are now without protections beyond what is provided by the civil service legislation. While it is true that Wisconsin has strong laws regarding its public workers, the protections are not there for many employees including teachers and local municipality workers. Civil service protections specify rights for employees in many areas like vacation and overtime. They protect employees from unjust termination and provide grievance procedures. However, they don't provide any rights for employees to bargain over these issues, the terms and conditions are set for the employees without their input.
I have mixed feelings about the fact that there are more protests in more places around the U.S. On one hand it is great to see that more and more people are aware of the injustice that is occurring and are willing to stand up for what is right. On the other hand the fact that there is a need for action in so many areas is discouraging. In addition to the recently settled, but still volatile, Tacoma teacher's strike there are many other actions occurring around our country. One that is of interest to many of us is the protesting on Wall St.
Here is another example of an organized effort to change unfair and immoral policies.
There are several other sites and postings that have called for other actions to be directed in areas like the anti-war/peace movement and similar movements. The key is that to date the most widespread calls for action have been non-violent and share a commitment to that philosophy. We can benefit from past experience and draw the legacy of movements that have achieved their aims through non-violent resistance.
The American Dream…
Over the course of history the American Dream has been defined by the level of economic achievement that is possible for an individual to reach. We are a culture where success is defined to a large degree by economic status and conspicuous consumption. The 1928 campaign slogan of the GOP stated that Coolidge and Harding had, "reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial 'chicken in every pot.' And a car in every backyard, to boot." At its heart that is what most politicians will base their platforms on, more money with less work and the goods that go with the increased income and social standing.
Much of the Republican rhetoric is based on people buying into the idea that anyone can become wealthy and that taxes will somehow lessen your chances of improving your own social and economic class. The reality is quite different.
The leadership that touts itself as being one that will create economic opportunity for everyone is not telling the full truth.
Instead of actually working to create jobs and opportunities for all Americans the GOP spends much of its time, energy and money creating the illusion that Democrats want to attack the American Dream.
Analysis breaks down cost of Wisconsin worker concessions | Green Bay Press Gazette | greenbaypressg