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Posted by Thomas Shevory at 11:07AM   |  4 comments
Wisconsin

Thomas Shevory, Ithaca College

What’s happening in Wisconsin could be seen as the final blow of deindustrialization. Deindustrialization was after all closely connected to undermining union power and undercutting labor costs.  The global flight of capital began its movement from the North into the American South, because unions there were either weaker or non-existent.

As deindustrialization took hold in the 70s, union membership dropped markedly.  Former union members lost their jobs, and others were cowed due to the lack of worker protections and took lower paid jobs.  The retail sector grew as cheap goods flooded the U.S., but it was difficult to organize, partly due to extreme and effective resistance on that part of management.

As a result, the gap between the non-unionized and unionized workforces expanded, not just in terms of wages and benefits, but in terms of a cultural understanding of the necessity of unions.  Support for unions has declined, as they have been seen by many non-union workers as ineffective, irrelevant, or privileged. Private sector union membership is now below 7%.

The exception to union membership decline was the public sector.  In the 80s and 90s, in spite of Republican hostility, as manifested by Ronald Reagan’s successful attempt to break the air traffic controllers’ union (PATCO), public sector union membership remained relatively strong, especially at the state level. The public sector was an island of stability in an unstable economic world.  Public employees held job security, health benefits, and pensions, as those things became increasingly scarce within the private sector workforce. 

Of course everything has its costs.  Local and state governments had to pay the salaries and benefits for unionized state workers.  But, in return, the public received essential services, from health care to education to bridge repair. Public sector jobs kept people from poverty, gave them the resources to send their kids to college, and, as a form of public spending, had a counter-cyclical influence during periods of economic recession. 

One question raised by the Wisconsin case is whether an existential threat to this last bastion of labor stability will bring people together, in recognition of a common enemy, or whether it will create resentment and fragmentation, as in, “I don’t have mine anymore, so why should you have yours?” 

According to a recent New York Times article, the politics of resentment is ascendant.  The Times quotes several private sector employees, some members of labor unions, who are supporting Governor Walker in his attempts to dismantle the public employee unions. In the words of one woman, "I don't get to bargain in my job either."

But it’s not clear that the article is an accurate representation of what’s happening.  There are other indications that solidarity between workers is expanding rather than contracting, not just within the leadership, but among the rank and file. Public support in Wisconsin, in general, seems to be moving to the side of the state employees.

It’s hard to reverse a downward spiral. When people start to lose, there is a tendency to lash out. And it’s hard to be optimistic, given the past forty years of labor history. But Governor Scott Walker may have actually crossed a line.

 


4 Comments

This is an excellent post.
I think it is important for us to realize that Walker's actions in Wisconsin (as well as the similar tactics that have been utilized by the right in labor battles over the last 30 years) are not simply an attack on unions or unions' rights, they are an attack on the people of the United States and on the integrity/functionality our democratic system. Walker's actions are an appeal for oligarchy, government by (and for) the wealthy few. Any one of us who believes that our individual voices matter, and that these voices deserve equal representation in the political process, is in solidarity with the workers in Wisconsin.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/opinion/21krugman.html?_r=1&ref=wisconsin

To quote the article that Nate posted, "What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin- and eventually, America- less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy." This sort of attitude, the attitude of Mr. Walker and others sharing his views, are exactly what undermines the way democracy is supposed to operate. In order for a democracy to be effective, EVERYONES voice needs to be heard. This includes lower and middle class workers, not just the influential politicians, corporate business executives, and individuals with money. Since the power elite makes up a minuscule percentage of the population and the majority of Americans are the ones on the bottom, the power should not be in the hands of individuals who don't even come in contact with most 'average' citizens on a daily basis. In order for the people's voice to be heard, as they have obviously been taken advantage of by the current power structure, they need to fight to be heard. Without struggle and passion, little gets accomplished. This is exactly what the citizens of Wisconsin are realizing. They are not even in the worst situation compared to other states economies, but they have come to the realization that little gets accomplished by sitting back and letting others make decisions for you. Situations do not just fix themselves over time, individuals need to stand up for the beliefs and ideals that they hold dearest to themselves. That was how our country was founded, after all.

I thank you for this posting! I have an article coming out in the next issue of the International Journal of Labour Research which shows how Milwaukee and the U.S. has been less successful than Ontario and Canada in developing mass transit production alternatives to deindustrialization.



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