On Tuesday, August 9, 2011, Wisconsin held recall elections of six Republican Senators as a direct result of the GOP controlled state government which managed to pass a limiting collective bargaining law for unions and public sector workers earlier this year. Despite the winter demonstrations and a lot of time and money spent on the recall elections Democrats failed to win the three seats necessary to obtain the majority in the state Senate. The Democrats won two seats, which now has them within one of equal separation. When all hell broke loose in Wisconsin, the Democratic State Senators left the state to avoid signing the bill, which would greatly curtail bargaining rights of the public sector workers, into law. The mainstream and social media were all gathering in the state capital and Madison, WI was filled with fervent defenders and attackers on both sides of this issue. The supporters of the bill chanted the same old “shared sacrifice” song as well as “unions are too big, have too much power that must be reduced”. The way Gov. Walker and the Republicans saw it the people who already make less money for what they would get in the private job sector must sacrifice more, and the corporations must be left alone so they could flourish. The Wisconsin Republicans don’t think the public sector employees sacrifice enough and must step up to take the lead in the “shared sacrifice”. The opponents of the bill used their arguments that unions are necessary, that the workers in question already agreed to severe spending and benefits cuts, but really want to hang on to their collective bargaining rights. After much heated debate and fighting and with some tricky maneuvering, the Wisconsin state Senate was able to pass this bill through without the Democrats. People were angry and Democrats in Wisconsin began the process for recall elections to take place this summer. August 9th recall elections were among the numerous recall elections taking place in Wisconsin this summer.
It is a losing argument to present unions as honest establishments. The fraud that went on and continues to go on is known. At the same time no one can argue that unions were originally created to serve a purpose; to protect the working class. In the beginning of the last century, before unions came to be recognized, workers went on strikes, went to jails, lead peaceful and violent demonstrations in order to win every single major and minor right from their employers. Corporations mistreated the working class in the worst possible way, while advocating for freedom and equality. This is a fragment of a conversation between Commissioner Harris Weinstock of the Commission on Industrial Relations and John Osgood, head of a Colorado coal company owned by Rockefellers circa 1914:
Weinstock: If a worker loses his life, are his dependents compensated in any way?
Osgood: Not necessarily. In some cases they are and in some cases not.
Weinstock: If he is crippled for life is there any compensation?
Osgood: No, sir, there is none…
Weinstock: Then the whole burden is thrown directly upon their shoulders.
Osgood: Yes, sir.
Weinstock: The industry bears none of it?
Osgood: No, the industry bears none of it.
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of United States, pp. 327-328)
In March 1931, two years into the Great Depression, Henry Ford said about the unemployment crisis here in America, “the average man won’t really do a man’s work unless he is caught and cannot get out of it. There is plenty of work if people would do it.” (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of United States, p. 387) Several weeks later Mr. Ford laid off 75,000 people.
Unions were needed and unions were forming. Somewhere along the way they became as fallible as human nature, and their flaws, shortcomings and failures are evident today. The Republican Party, which is emphatically against unions, has a valid argument on their side. They say why fund these establishments when they don’t work and better reroute the money to the private sector and give corporations more tax breaks. However, before singing that tune, perhaps the Republican Party should take a peek into this country’s past to the time before the unions. The truth is that most of the gains won for the rights of the working class (against the desires of corporations) were won before the recognition and popularity of unions. According to research most benefits were won by the workers’ uprisings. As workers continued to strike, despite the owner’s and government crackdowns which included prison, violence and death, the working class united in joining strikes and sit-ins in sympathy with other strikers. In addition, by shutting down factories, plants and even whole towns they won many of the rights that the American worker enjoys today. With the formation, growth and recognition of unions came different ways of presenting grievances. Negotiations and bargaining replaced strikes and sit-ins, for the most part. Despite the promise by two biggest unions not to strike during America’s involvement in WWII, “there were more strikes in 1944 than in any previous year in American history, says Jeremy Brecher.” (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of United States, p. 403)
In today’s age, despite the existence of the unions, some groups still strike, though the strikes are sporadic, not as widespread as they were before the working class was able to unionize and even civilized. It seems that the Republicans continue to be ignorant of history and advocate failed measures. Just a reminder: corporations came first, not the unions. If we go back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution we understand that unions were born for a reason. Had the working class been treated fairly there may have never been any need for unions. This is a historical fact. The old way without unions failed. It didn’t work. Despite Mitt Romney’s insistence that “Corporations are people”, they are not, and the working class was not respected, heard or protected until unions came about and offered some sort of protection and representation.
On August 9th, the voters spoke, and all the demonstrations, anger and public outcry across the country were not enough for the Democrats to obtain the control of the state Senate. While the margin has narrowed, Republicans are unapologetically standing firm on their cuts and now on very solid ground having survived these important recall elections. The voters gave some ground back to the Democrats, but nonetheless refused to bring more pro union politicians into the Wisconsin legislature. Somewhere along the way, it seems, the unions lost their image of fighting for the American worker and instead came to be seen as a corrupt institution. As a nation we want to believe in unions, we want to believe that they operate in the best interest of their members, and often they do. But often enough, they are corrupt and operate in the best interests of the top honchos and not their members. It seems that the voters wanted some change or at least a greater challenge to the Republican majority, but not enough to defang the GOP completely. On Tuesday, August 16, Wisconsin held two more recall elections. This time two Democrats were on the ballot, who the Republicans were seeking to replace. Republicans failed and the two Democrats are staying. I find it fascinating that in spite of Gov. Walker’s plan to curtail the rights of workers, that were so hard won in the previous generations, voters did not completely rebel and throw all the Republicans out of office, they just made the split a narrower one (17-16), and arguably created a bigger challenge for the Republican controlled government. Perhaps, this was done to send a message to the unions. Perhaps American people want the unions to accept at least some responsibility in the American attitude to that establishment, and, most importantly, to take real and substantiative steps in reform and restoration of American faith. So, GOP, while you take strongly to oppose unions, perhaps you should heed to the proverbial, “be careful what you wish for”, and learn your history.
If I am missing something, please enlighten me.