Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thoughts on Wisconsin, labor unions, and democracy

Before I don my asbestos underwear and jump into the fire, understand that anyone paying attention can see some ominous trends once you peek behind the curtain. Mountains of assets are being sucked up by the unfathomably wealthy, too few Americans grasp the role of government, and we're in real danger of succumbing to a plutocracy.

Given the true wealth of the United States--our water, our minerals, our trees, our climate, and our Constitution--we can turn things around. And we will. What's happening in Madison, though, is a symptom, not the cure.

How many folks in your town have ever been to a town council meeting? A board of education hearing? Or (yawn, who has time) a session of the zoning board? How many in your town vote in the Presidential election, but fail to vote in the mayoral one?

Democracy is noisy and messy and frightfully ineffective at times--the protests in Madison got that part down--but it also depends on process and work and citizenship.

On rallies:
Getting stoked at a rally can be exhilarating and can send a powerful message. Our Bill of Rights "guarantee" our right to assembly (though the recent expansion of Free Speech Zones makes a mockery of this). Voting is far less exciting, but if everyone with stake in it took the time to vote in their community's best interests, Wisconsin would not be in this mess. (No, it's not like Egypt, folks--you really need to do a little more probing....)

Keep the rally going! Keep fighting the good fight! Then, however it all turns out, continue to flex your fledgling wings at your town halls, in your local coffee shops, in your local papers.

On fleeing legislators
Legislators scurrying out of state makes for entertaining news, and there may be merit in buying time for a vote as historic as the one about to take place, but it's only temporary, and again reflects a symptom, not a cure. With government comes duty. A democratic republic can really suck at times, but so long as the people participate knowledgeably, it beats any other form of rule hands down.

On sickouts:
A functioning republic depends on an educated citizenry. Teachers matter because education matters. Closing schools through a job action to protest even a bill as vile as the one proposed sends a very mixed message. I understand the anger. I'm earning making less this year than I did last year, and it may get worse next year. Still, I owe it to my students, to their parents, and to my town to deliver what I promised I would deliver.

No doubt some teachers believe that their actions serve a greater purpose in the long run, and no doubt many are willingly giving up their pay for the days missed. Still, what we do matters, every single day. We have a public duty. Closing schools rarely helps our cause.

On unions:
Unions matter, more than most of us not involved in the plutonomy realize. They only matter, though, if they act as unions, for the general good of everyone in the union.

The past few years we have seen unions create two-tiered memberships. Here in Jersey, our local teacher unions, in conjunction with school boards,  have created some pay scales that result in the top earning more than twice as much as the bottom, for essentially performing the same work. Until unions start acting as true unions, protecting every member's interests, their status will continue to fall.

The events in Wisconsin may mark the beginning of public awareness, a fresh look at the marvelous possibilities we have in a land filled with grace, but only if we start to do the work that needs to be done.

If you're going to abandon, even temporarily, your duties as a legislator or as a teacher, to take on greater duties as a citizen, you had better be willing to work hard, very hard, to make this American experiment work.

Otherwise you're part of the problem.

Asbestos fire suit photo originally from Life.


The Science Goddess said...

I have often said during my 20 years as a teacher that as long as teachers act like blue collar workers, they will be treated like blue collar workers.

When those currently exercising their "right to peaceably assemble" show me that it extends to whether or not I am allowed to choose to join a union---I will stand with them. But a stand against union-busting...then turning around to make everyone belong to your creed seems hypocritical, at best.

I have no problem with the existence of unions. I understand that they can serve a good purpose. But just as I have choice for religion, political affiliation, charitable actions, and service organizations, I should be able to choose how I am represented. The things I currently want for my classroom, my growth as a professional, and my future as an educator are not valued by the union here. Shouldn't my $1000 in dues go to support an organization which does?

Sue VanHattum said...

Science Goddess, I hope Doyle can address your concern. I disagree, but I'm not very articulate about it. Let me try this. If you don't like the government's policies, does that mean you shouldn't have to pay taxes, or does it mean you need to work to change the government? I don't want to pay military taxes, but if each tax were voluntary, lots of folks wouldn't pay the school tax. If you don't like your union's priorities, please work to change it, instead of working to diminish the power of your union (which is supposed to represent all of its members, including you).

Doyle, I'm not sure I agree with every word, but as usual, I am loving what you've written.

John T. Spencer said...

re: loca papers - I'm not sure there is such a thing as a local paper anymore.

re: labor unions - Amazing how Obama suddenly supports unions, but pushes education policies that are anti-public, anti-teacher and anti-union.

re: democracy - the Romans understood how to use bread and circus to avoid democracy in the name of empire. Spend a half hour on Twitter and you'll realize that folks are more impressed with a badass new app than with what's really going on off-screen.

doyle said...

Dear Science Goddess,

I agree that if a union does not support its members, all its members, top to bottom in seniority, then it's hypocritical to mandate membership. The closed shop/open shop distinction is perilous enough (though I get it) when unions act as unions. It's extortion when they don't.

Dear Sue,

I am dodging the issue. We're in the middle of acrimonious negotiations, and I avoid talking about the local here on the blog.

The key phrase is "supposed to represent all its members"--it gets messy when they fall short of this ideal.

Dear John,

We still have local papers--two, in fact. They are critical to the survival of local democracy. We have a good local blognews site, too, which helps. Why not start one?

I agree that Obama's position is inconsistent, to say the least. Unions are called "locals" for good reason. This is not a Federal issue, but it is a critical state and town one.

Democracy can work, but people need to pay attention, and people need to work at it. You're right about the circus aspect of life these days--it's what fuels the plutonomy.

I still hold out hope. We are blessed here. Wisconsin may represent folks waking up--if it does, the experiment may continue bit.

John T. Spencer said...

We have one decent local paper in town. It's very underground in its feel and appeal and thus it's usually ignored. The supposed "local" paper (the Republic) is owned by a large conglomerate and slowly moves closer and closer to being another USA Today.

I've thought of working with a few locals to do a news blog. There's a decent one in downtown Phoenix that I've contributed to.

doyle said...

Dear John,

Do it. For your kids, for your land, for your country. None of this is trite. Those in power might want you to believe you're powerless.

We're not.

Anonymous said...

Are the unions failing to represent the interests of all (or most), or are they failing to understand what the interests are? I suspect the latter.

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

It gets complicated--teachers' unions (in NJ anyway) are truly local, run by humans, with human foibles.

In the end, at least here in Jersey, the unions are, in fact, us.