Workers of Wisconsin, United?

Nancy MacLean

Nancy MacLean
Arts & Sciences Professor of history
Megan Morr

In March, the Wisconsin state legislature passed a bill—later signed into law by new Republican Governor Scott Walker—severely limiting the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions despite weeks of public demonstrations by union members and their supporters. Many other states introduced similar legislation around that time. Ostensibly it was meant to cut spending and balance budgets, but it also put unionized state employees in a perilous position. Duke Magazine spoke to Nancy MacLean, Arts & Sciences Professor of history and a scholar of women’s and labor history and of the American conservative movement, to find out what effect these sweeping actions will have.

What are some reasons why we have public-sector unions?

Public employees began pushing for union recognition and collective bargaining rights at the same time that the civil rights movement was pushing for equal citizenship for African Americans. The two efforts came together in Memphis in 1968 during the sanitation workers’ strike there, where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. lost his life standing beside sanitation workers who were seeking, above all, the right to union recognition and collective bargaining rights. That really was the beginning of a wave of organizing of public-sector workers—many of whom were African Americans, many of whom were women—that really took off in the 1970s as those groups claimed equal citizenship rights across the board.

Public-sector unions often are bargaining for things that are broadly in the public interest: for keeping down class sizes so that students learn better, for having better nurse-patient ratios in public hospitals, for upping levels of police protection, things like that, that are in the broader public interest and not about workers’ wages or compensation.

Yet much of the rhetoric surrounding this debate is framed in terms of how much workers’ compensation and benefits are costing the states. Why do you think that is?

The conservative movement has effectively taken over the Republican Party and made it very different from the Republican Party my father voted for when he was alive and that he supported through the years. Conservative organizations and think tanks have very effective media staffs, do a lot of polling, do a lot of focus-group testing, and really think hard about how to craft their messages. So you’ll see, for example, certain kinds of buzzwords: They rarely will say “unionism” without saying “monopoly unionism.” They will rarely talk about groups, whether it’s gay people or public workers, without saying “special rights” rather than “rights.” There is kind of an Orwellian attention to language designed to put the groups that they’re targeting beyond the pale somehow.

I think that there has been a very calculated and carefully calibrated and modulated attempt to make public workers and their unions seem like villains—like they’re somehow hurting or taking advantage of the rest of us. Yet if we just take the story back a little further in time, we might actually remember that public workers did not bring on this economic and budgetary crisis, that this is the result of some very shady and problematic practices on the part of our banking industry, which were enabled by deregulation and which almost undermined our entire economy.

Our attention is pointed instead toward school teachers and school crossing guards and firefighters, to make us think that somehow they have created the insecurity that we are now feeling or the kind of economic retrenchment that the whole economy is experiencing. I think that the framing is false, and I actually do believe—and I say this in a very considered way—that it is deliberately and intentionally misleading.

Tip of the iceberg: Protesters in Wisconsin’s state capitol building demonstrate in opposition to Governor Scott Walker’s move to limit collective bargaining rights, a tactic seen as threatening public-sector unions.

Tip of the iceberg: Protesters in Wisconsin’s state capitol building demonstrate in opposition to Governor Scott Walker’s move to limit collective bargaining rights, a tactic seen as threatening public-sector unions.
Associated Press

How should states cut their budget deficits?

Our revenue system has changed dramatically since the 1980s, let alone the 1950s and 1960s, when, by the way, the economy thrived and the middle class grew. We do not have a tax system that is adequate to the needs of an advanced society and we do not have a tax system that is fair. We need to get back to a sane system of taxation in which people who have benefited most from living in this country pay higher tax rates and our government has adequate income to do what we ask of it, and do it well.

If you look at the poll data, even wealthier Americans are willing to pay adequate taxes to support our schools and to pay teachers adequate salaries for the work that they do, but again, we have this very ideological Republican Party now that is dominated by the conservative movement that came out of the Barry Goldwater candidacy in 1964, and they are calling for things that not even some of the wealthiest Americans would want to see. These anti-union bills were policies-in-waiting, you could say, waiting for an immediate budget crisis as a pretext to enact policies that these ideological conservatives had been seeking for decades.

The law passed in Wisconsin severely limits collective bargaining rights. Is there a reason to have a union without strong collective bargaining rights?

The basic point is, as I saw on a placard at one of the Wisconsin demonstrations, “United we bargain, divided we beg.” A union exists to bring the collective power of coworkers to bear in winning better conditions and benefits than isolated individuals could in the face of concentrated power.

What’s interesting, if you take this back historically to the 1930s, is that it was an employers’ push first of all to restrict unions to just collective bargaining. Back in the late 1930s and 1940s, unions were also involved in advocating for things like community health centers and in sponsoring various kinds of state and national legislation that sought things like universal health care. But they faced a concerted pushback from employers on that front. Collective bargaining, in effect, restricted what unions could do in the U.S. as compared to what they were doing in countries of Western Europe.

The other thing to notice about the Wisconsin legislation is that to say it limits collective bargaining rights is really an understatement. The legislation is crafted to ensure that within about five years, public-sector unions would die out in the state because they would be limited to bargaining only for wages—which would be limited to the rate of inflation—and they’d have no reliable dues funding and would not be able to deliver benefits to their members.

The United States is also attracting the attention of human-rights groups for our effective denial of the right to organize to workers. Amnesty International is citing the U.S. as a problem nation that is violating international labor law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their report mentions that hundreds of anti-labor bills have been introduced in more than thirty states.

Do you think Republicans will see a backlash in this country to pushing for and passing this kind of legislation?

Well, we’ll see what happens. In real time, 2012 is pretty far from now, and I think that the political operatives who are proposing these measures understand that a lot will happen between now and then. Clearly, we have seen pronounced reaction to what’s happening, first in Wisconsin and then around the country in these other places the legislation is being proposed.

But at the same time, it could turn out to have been a pretty effective gambit. The American public suffers from a kind of attention-deficit disorder at this point in our national life, and I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2012.

I would say, sadly, that I’m not optimistic these days for the long term about the prospects for robust democracy in the United States, not least because of the continuing power of money in our politics, which is only going to get worse with the [Supreme Court’s] Citizens United decision. I think we’re going to see a barrage of campaign advertising that will cloud the issues and mislead the public. When you put all these things together, it’s pretty chilling, actually.

This interview was conducted, condensed, and edited by Aaron Kirschenfeld.



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