Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hubris in Wisconsin
by David Gilfix

Little of the national debate about Wisconsin’s controversial Budget Repair Bill is really about Wisconsin, its budget, or the actual bill.  Mostly, the debate has become a soundboard to reflect people’s views about unions.  Critics of unions point out that unions sometimes go too far and don't always act in the public's best interest. In some cases, union contracts have disallowed non-union members to perform simple, inexpensive tasks, guaranteed raises even when they were undeserved, and made it difficult to fire underperforming workers.  Fair enough. But what about corporations?  Prior to unions, we had child labor, 7-day work weeks, unsafe and unhealthy work conditions, widespread discrimination, and inadequate pay for millions of people who could not battle alone for higher pay. Was the goal of the corporation ever to act in the "public's best interest"?
The simple truth is that while neither corporations nor unions are designed to act in the best interest of the public they often have the effect of acting in the public’s interest.  A corporation's first allegiance is to its shareholders, and a union's first allegiance is to its members. Corporations, acting in their own best interest, have created technological innovations, medical breakthroughs, and wonderful products that have improved and transformed our quality of life and increased our leisure time.  Unions, acting in their own best interest, have improved the working conditions, wages, and safety standards of millions of people, protected minorities from discrimination, and helped create the middle class, to which most of us belong.   
People who criticize teachers and police unions because they advocate for their members’ benefits (rather than the good of the public) are correct to a point, but miss a bigger, more basic, tenet about capitalism: by working towards and advancing their own best interest, whether it be a corporation or a union, everyone often benefits.  Without profit as a motivation, why would corporations take financial risks to create innovative products?  Similarly, without the improvements in wages and working conditions brought on by unions, what would influence qualified candidates to enter the fields of teaching and law enforcement, about which we claim to care so much?      
It is true that unions sometimes go too far, but to blame our financial crises mostly on out-of-control unions, while ignoring the consequences to our financial situation of two expensive wars and fraud and waste committed by out-of-control corporations is folly.  Good morning, America!  While some of us were sleeping, there was an epidemic of banking scandals brought about partly by unsound and sometimes fraudulent investment schemes, misleading and sometimes dishonest marketing campaigns, inaccurate and incompetent accounting practices and credit ratings, and an avaricious corporate culture that awarded huge payouts to the same members who presided over the personal investments through which Americans went broke. 
Which brings us to Wisconsin.

On March 9, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin voted to strip unions of nearly all collective bargaining rights.  Republican Governor Scott Walker released a written statement that said, "I applaud all members of the Assembly for showing up, debating the legislation, and participating in democracy.  Their action will save jobs, protect taxpayers, reform government, and help balance the budget."
Governor Walker believes that unions are partly responsible for Wisconsin’s budget challenges.  Therefore, he has determined that the solution should involve removing unions from the budgetary process, rather than seriously responding to other causes, such as  poor investments, corporate tax breaks that withdrew money from the system, poor fiscal planning and accounting, inadequate taxation, or the national and international economic downturn.  Inspired by Walker’s leadership, Republican senators decided that it was in everyone’s best interest to vote against the rights of employees to assemble and vote in their best interests.
However, by supporting legislation that stripped people of the right to exert their influence through negotiations, Governor Walker has advocated against a democratic system of checks and balances between employers and unions.  This, in turn, means that he and the Republican lawmakers who supported the bill don’t believe we need such a system.  Moreover, it suggests that they are unaware that the history of USA labor relations is a long exercise of give and take, push and pull, between employers and employees, marked by setbacks and huge gains for both sides.    
Rather than acknowledge this history, Governor Walker and the Republican lawmakers have chosen to focus exclusively on the abuses of unions while ignoring their benefits, and on the benefits of corporate and state employers while ignoring their abuses.  Could they be myopic?  Ideologues?
There is another possibility.  They could be so sure that they know the causes and remedy for the State’s fiscal problems that they believe listening to opposing opinions is a waste of time.  Better to dictate their solution without negotiating with unions that don’t have the public’s best interest at heart (unlike them), than to negotiate and risk a compromise.  

But this brings us to a puzzle:  How could a governor and lawmakers, who should understand the complexities of the financial challenges and fallibility of economic forecasts, be so sure they have the correct solutions?  So convinced of their prescience, in fact, that they would vote to disallow negotiations from large groups of employees who might disagree.

There is only one answer.  Hubris.
Next Counter Rhythms article:  
Congratulations. You're Lucky!
(Some uncommon thoughts for the graduating class of 2011)

Previous article: Life in the age of Pretend
(A list of all articles is on left side of page, near the top)


Ralph said...

Once again, a thought-provoking analysis of a sad picture in our society. Writing is top-notch.

Mark said...

Bravo. Should state employees keep or lower their current compensation? THE QUESTION MISSES THE POINT! The point, that you make so persuasively, is that in a healthy democracy they should be allowed to advocate for their best interests.

Ricky Greenwald said...

Hubris is one answer, but there are others. Since the same governor had just given a state tax break to the rich, it was obvious that the budget was not his primary concern. Rather, it was (as the republican congress' nationally) to reward the rich for being rich (and perhaps for paying the politicians' way).

That being said, there is one important difference between unions representing those who work for government as opposed to private enterprise. Those in for-profit enterprises have an interest in the success of the enterprise and often make compromises to help the enterprise remain competitive in the market. In government employ, this incentive is not so obvious and, at least in many states, the raises continue even while in private enterprise there can be decreases as well as increases, even in union shops. So it may be that some different system is called for.

rochrist said...

Sorry, no, Walker doesn't believe his nonsense abouot unions being responsible for the budget crisis. He doesn't even believe in the budget crisis itself other than as a tool to bludgeon the democrats with, or he wouldn't have handed businesses a 142 million dollar tax cut the second he took office.

This is purely an attempt to damage democratic fundraising ability. The barely even tried to hide it.

Anonymous said...

The part of the problem you neglected David is that the govenor just gave a tax break to the break. The other part question is not whether the teachers etc. get too much rather should not everyone receive the same benefits that other government officials receive?

ssancetta said...

Thank you! So glad you conclude with hubris, rather than the thin and overused "greed". Most balanced article I have seen on the subject.

Dina Hirshfeld-Becker said...

No, it's not hubris, it's a concerted effort to reduce campaign financing for Democrats.

You should read the editorial in the New Yorker from a few weeks back by Hendrik Hertzberg: The efforts by many Republican governors (not just Walker) to bust and bankrupt public sector unions is entirely about trying to prevent the unions from funding campaign ads in the 2012 election (as they are allowed to do under the Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited spending on these ads by both corporations and unions).

smart-cuss said...

I tend to agree with rochrist and Hirschfield- Becker: these moves are tactics to disarm and defund the Democratic Party, further unleashing the fascists in their oppression of the American middle class.
It's been NO HELP to labor, as illustrated in the Sunday NYTimes story of the abuses in the state's community residences for its developmentally disabled citizens, to see the perpetrators of evil go unpunished;
but to reward the bankrupting of America by the outsourcing of manufacturing, the speculation of investors' money raising the prices of energy at serious cost to many Americans' well-being,bonuses to Wall St. ad nauseum...

Sensemaker said...

You write:"...Republican senators decided vote against the rights of employees to assemble and vote in their best interests". Unless I missed it in the news, I don't believe anybody even proposed to take away the rights of employees to assemble and vote. People are still constitutionally protected to assemble, complain about their inability to contribute to their own medical coverage and even vote to give huge sums of their money to Democrats. What was curtailed is their ability to vote to shake down the rest of Wisconsinites. Voting to decide on your own action is a healthy democratic exersise. Voting to get something from others smacks of mafia counsil. In its presumed role of an arbitrator, the government acted courageously and responsibly. On a side, after seeing the damage to the Capitol building and reading the death threats sent to democratically elected representatives by union thugs it is pretty hard to get all cuddly and sympathetic to their plight. "Your money or your life" is the new unions' motto. Who has "hubris" again?

Scam Buster (AKA David Merfeld) said...

Labor v. employer should be a battle of opposing economic interests. If labor asks for too much, employers can replace them. If employers offer too little, labor can seek other employment.

To have a robust, capitalist competition, each side should be free to use any honest means at its disposal. Thus it has been for decades. Among these means has always been the power to confederate and bargain as a bloc. Thus, the state of Wisconsin does not negotiate with its state police one barracks at a time; one employer bargains with one union.

What Wisconsin proposes to do is use its legislative power to give it, and no other employer, a tilted playing field. No other employer in the state can prohibit its opponent from organizing against it. In effect, the state becomes a party to a contest, while retaining the power to set the rules, and rig these rules in its favor.

Let's play chess: I get to take back moves I later regret; you can't.

David Gilfix said...

As usual, some fascinating, thought provoking comments. Here are some responses:

Several people commented that Walker’s main goal was to weaken the Democratic Party rather than balancing the budget. They pointed out that if he truly cared about the budget he wouldn't have pushed for huge corporate tax cuts so soon after assuming office. It is hard to disagree with this. Is “hubris” too kind?

A few people, with different views, made distinctions between unions in the private sector and unions of government workers. One person suggested that unions of private sector employees (unlike unions of government employees) are vested in the success of the “enterprise,” and will “make compromises to help the enterprise remain competitive,” unlike government employees, whose “raises continue” [regardless]. At first glance, this is a powerful distinction, and a compelling argument for treating unions of government employees differently. The problem is, it is demonstrably incorrect. In recently years, teacher and police unions throughout the country have accepted contracts with significant decreases in compensation (just like union members in the private sector).

Another person, who supported Walker and the Republicans, wrote that nothing prevents public employee workers from exercising their constitutional rights to assemble or vote, which is correct; they simply are denied the right to bargain as a group. But this is a little like saying they are free to look powerful but disallowed to have power.

The government employer, like the private sector corporation, can discriminate, offer inadequate wages, provide unsafe or unhealthy work conditions, and treat employees unfairly. An individual, without union backing, rarely has the time, finances, or job security to redress these issues.

According to Penn State labor studies professor Paul F. Clark, our present approach to collective bargaining goes back to the 1930s, and specifically to the 1935 Wagner Act, which gave workers the right to unionize. People who claim that unions are antithetical to capitalism should know that the results of the Wagner Act contradict their beliefs. The Wagner Act, in part, led to wage increases, which created more consumers, more competition, more and better products from more companies that hired more employees, which led to the creation of the middle class.

However, the Wagner Act did not cover government employees, and their wages and working conditions fell significantly behind. In 1959, Wisconsin was the first state to allow unions, and today almost all states allow government workers this right. Moreover, Clark points out that the right to collective bargaining in a union is considered a universal right, supported by Article 23 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

Anonymous said...

Hey David,

Good article. I have a few things to add. If the deal stinks so bad, wouldn't there be a line of people leaving those teaching jobs in Wisconsin and elsewhwere. I know in my district, we teachers are complaining and complaining about how lousy our pay is and how tough the job is and not one teacher has left our district for better opportunties elsewhere. If fact, the deal is so good that everytime a job opens up, hundreds of unemployed teachers are clawing to get their hands on those lousy wages and terrible working conditions. One last thing. Who's "rights" are more important; the union of workers or the individual worker.