So, let’s be clear: it’s not about the budget. As the facts have emerged in the 2011 Wisconsin crisis with Governor Scott Walker’s move against public service unions, it is not about Wisconsin lacking funds. There is no credible way that Walker and his clique can argue that eliminating a worker’s right to collective bargaining saves the state a dime. Each time that this is raised it becomes a laughable moment.
What we are witnessing is a well-orchestrated effort on the part of the Republicans to cleanse the USA of viable labor unions. It is really that simple. While those Democrats who have attacked public service unions, such as New York Governor Cuomo, are little better, they have a different objective, which is more about totally subordinating the unions to their economic agenda and appeasing many conservative voters. For the Republicans, which have consolidated as a hard-line right-wing party-bloc, the aim is to weaken labor unions into irrelevance and by doing so, eliminate an institution which they believe supports the Democratic Party, as well as other liberal and progressive motions.
At the same time, there is an economic element to what is unfolding. It is the latest, and perhaps final, steps begun by the Republicans, and those Democrats that subscribe to a neo-liberal economic ideology, to rob the public sector of resources in order to produce gain for private contractors. In other words, this is nothing more than modern day piracy with conservative forces eyeing the public sector-as they have for more than thirty years-as a location for economic expansion. The objective is to seize potentially profitable segments of the public sector in order to increase profits for private corporations. This, then, has nothing to do with public service, increasing efficiency, or saving the taxpayers a cent. It is nothing short of highway robbery.
So, the political objective is to eliminate unions and the economic agenda is to eliminate public space, privatizing all that may be a potential source of profits. To carry out a privatization agenda, perhaps better understood as a piracy agenda, the Republicans must eliminate all obstacles. The obstacles include but are not limited to labor unions. Thus, central to their strategy must be divide and conquer, an approach that we are witnessing playing out in the realm of education.
What the Right has succeeded in doing in education has been to demonize the teachers’ unions and to place themselves, and their privatization allies, at the forefront of what they wish for the rest of us to understand as ‘education reform.’ The failure of the teachers’ unions and, for that matter, most public service unions, to position themselves as legitimate champions of the public, has led to a situation where the Right can argue that the unions are representatives of special interests. Thus, the public sector can be cannibalized while some of the victims sit back and rest in some-temporary-comfort that they have yet to have been thrown into the stew.
Regardless of the outcome of the battle in Wisconsin, the good news is that segments of organized labor and their allies are standing up and, indeed, learning from the courage of the Arab democratic revolt thousands of miles away, that people in motion can make an amazing difference. Yet stubborn and courageous resistance will not be enough. To that resistance must be a new vision of public service that places the unions as guardians of the public and the public’s interests rather than as guardians of the interests of their members alone. This means a different sort of unionism, a social justice unionism, but that will be the only way that not only will we succeed in defending the public space, but also in revitalizing a worker’s movement for the 21st century.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com, Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.