Your Justice Is My Pay Check

by James Matthew Wilson on February 27, 2011 · 15 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

Wisconsin Capitol

Tucson, AZ. Far from my native Midwest, which sometimes seems to be working out the details of its final collapse after decades of decline, and far from the equally depressing backroom corruption and social-democratic clientalism of Pennsylvania, I have appreciated Don Knauss’ ambivalent reflections posted here, which I came upon just after reading today’s edition of the Arizona Daily Star.  In that paper, I encountered Jason Smathers’ Associated Press report on the “Army of Volunteers” who have groped their way up to the frozen steppes of Wisconsin to join the heroic crusade of the public unions to defend their hard-won dignity and powers.

Our implausibly named reporter quotes Carol DeGrave, 53, “a middle-school media coordinator in Green Bay.”  DeGrave tells us, “she’s protested for the last three days because she’s afraid that without collective bargaining, her school district will cut her position.”  The overtly principled DeGrave explains: “We’re not going to shut up . . . because this is wrong.  It is such an injustice.”

I react to these lines, not in surprise that reporters apparently now use contractions, but because DeGrave’s comments so neatly indicate the great spectacle that modern politics and statescraft reveals to us.  If the protest is motivated by particular parties’ seeking to protect their particular interests, in this case the immense benefits and job security that inhere in a public employee’s position and union membership, that is one argument.  If the protest is motivated by a question of justice, that is another.  Either the protest is a defense of private interests, legitimate or otherwise, or it is a defense of the principle of justice as an ordination of the common good of society.

The history of labor unions, whether of public employees or those working in private enterprise, is of course fraught with ambiguity as to which of these possibilities is most sound.  Most of us would concede that the particular interests of this or that person necessarily bears some relation to justice and the common good, and that, therefore, the good of society as a whole may be advanced by the honest representation of workers’ interests unions can make possible.  On the other hand, most of us also have seen that advocates of unions frequently take a page from the Saul Alinsky play book by trying to pass off what is frankly personal or class interest as a question of the common good.  If DeGrave is protesting simply because she is worried that she may lose her job, then her activity has a very reasonable motivation, but is not in any evident sense a question of justice; in a word, she is speaking in defense of what she desires not necessarily in defense of something she deserves and may claim as hers by right of her intrinsic dignity as a person and citizen or by right of her having performed some service in the past that merits, in recompense, the guarantee of continuing employment unconditional of the State’s capacity to pay her.

Let us observe, with commonplace despair, that the kind of anti-logical elision found in DeGrave’s statement is typical of a time such as ours that has no idea what are the coordinating principles that make for social order.  But let us go a step beyond that.  Justice can only exist between persons who have the same common good; indeed, it is a principle that emenates, among persons, from a shared common good; the “common good” thus refers to that good all persons share in.  But most arguments in our political realm, such as it is, appeal to the “common good” speciously.  They suggest that, by privileging party X at the expense of party Z, the “common good” can be obtained.  In doing so, they refer by the term “common good” not to the good the members of a community actually hold in common, but to an abstract generalized society, the common, that stands distinct from and in opposition to the individual persons who constitute it.  In this usage, party X must suffer that the “whole” may realize itself.  Persons who speak thus generally conceal, in other words, that they do not believe in a common good; they believe only in the interests of particular bodies, usually in the supposedly intrinsic divisions of class.  As such, when they say “common good” or “good of the whole” they really speak of the projected outcome of sustained class struggle.  There is no common good in this Marxist analysis, but only the good of a class that is meant eventually to triumph over all others.

The modern political tradition in general sustains this Marxist conclusion.  Or rather, we have largely assumed since Machiavelli, that the common good can be no more than an appearance of order maintained by the playing-off-each-other of opposed forces, and so the modern tradition gave birth to various theories of capitalism, republican government, and class struggle.  I would ask, at this late date, can we imagine a politics founded on a principle other than the competition of irreconcilable forces or parties?  A politics founded on a shared conception of the good for the individual person and the common good of persons?

One point of entry into the imaginative exercise such questions invite is to ask, in light of the comments quoted above, whether we can see the incoherence of a union representing citizens-qua-employees against themselves as citizen-qua-citizens of the state of Wisconsin?  Could we put ourselves in DeGrave’s position and still believe that she might benefit from the passing of legislation that would put in doubt the existence of her own job?

As Knauss’s essay suggests, we may also ask, is Gov. Walker in earnest about the fiscal integrity of the State of Wisconsin, or is he, too, diverting attention from his throwing spoils to some plutocratic associates by making appeals to a fictitious common good?

I ask these last question sincerely, even as I am reasonably confident no middle school should need a “media coordinator,” and though I incline to believe that public employee unions by their very existence intimate that there can be no shared or common good amongst people in the modern State.  Does this mean that society exists only nominally, as a blanket term for a congeries of competing parties?  Or does it suggest that, at the very least, there is something perverse in modern statecraft, which dreams of private vices competing and negating each other to beget an ever-more-ellusive public virtue?

I conclude with what may appear a digression.  What I find so exhillerating about Walker’s actions, and those of his peers in Indiana and Ohio, is that the natural limitations of the individual states are forcing people and politicians to think politically, i.e. their finitude forces them to make choices about the good.  They cannot, after all, run endless deficits, as the Federal government can, on the mere strength of the dollar’s reserve-currency status and the (almost) perennial bully-power made possible by the astronomical size of the military.  Thus, the spectacle in Wisconsin may at once expose the limitations of the modern political tradition as a theory of mere competing class interests, and expose as well what politics looks like when people fulfill their natures as rational animals capable of asking questions about their good, and as political animals, who sense that such questions must be worked out in the public realm.  We see, that is, that politics appears more messy and more real; it makes for the most violent spectacle when it seeks to answer questions that would order society to its common good; and it suggests that politics and the good appear in the clearest focus when they are dramatized at the proper scale.  Here is hoping for the day when, by calamity or pure common sense, we work out all political questions at the level of local communities and states and leave the behmemoth technocrats no powers to exercise or problems to solve.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Russell Arben Fox February 27, 2011 at 8:25 pm


I think we likely have almost entirely different preferences regarding the possible outcomes of the stand-off going on in Wisconsin right now, but that doesn’t stop me from recognizing that this is an excellent post. You make a truly important observation here–that once one begins to think of society as a constellation of interests and powers, and argues that the unequal distribution of influence which exists between employers and the employed in the modern capitalist marketplace requires that labor organize itself as a “countervailing power” (as I claimed in my post on Friday), then perhaps all talk of a “common good” really has gone out the window. It’s an important, and a sobering, insight: I’m happy to make the argument, and I think it’s a persuasive one, that unions can be tool for defending localism, equality, a family wage, intact neighborhoods, and all the rest…but I really can’t make the argument that there is anything republican about them. Unions can be part of a particular kind of communitarian agenda, but not an agenda which imagines the whole of the commonwealth together; the logic of unions is oppositional, not teleological. You’ve made me think here, and I appreciate that.

I will come back with one parting response, though. In your conclusion, when you speak (in rather Arendtian terms, if you think about it) about your exhilaration at the way Walker’s challenging of union power sets up a confrontation with the “natural limitations of the individual states,” and thus a return to thinking seriously about politics…will you acknowledge that your insight makes an equal amount of sense from the opposite direction as well? Just as Wisconsin cannot “run endless deficits,” and thus must confront the reality of austerity, isn’t it also true that they cannot endlessly cut taxes and undermine state revenues, not when they must also confront the reality of the collective wishes of the population for expenditures? Of course, one might respond that 1) the collective wishes of the population were reflected in the 2010 election (but of course that was an argument which the Obama administration made regarding 2008, and it, thus far, has been accepted no more easily by Republicans than Walker’s election has been by the protesters and the Democrats currently in hiding), or that 2) the collective wishes of the population of Wisconsin are flawed (but that would be short-cutting the hoped-for engagement with the common good of the whole state, would it not?). But if neither of those easy responses are accepted, than it seems to me that your applauding of Walker’s forcing of the issue (confronting limits by demanding austerity and the radical reform of unions) is equally applicable to unions which, by mobilizing tens of thousands of people in the cold days of late February, have also forced the issue (confronting limits by accepting compromises of in benefits and more moderate union reforms, with the implication that additional taxes and other less-than-pleasing corporate actions much be taken). Is there any particular reason why you assume that one side is doing most of the, or most of the morally worthwhile, pushing here?

avatar Mark Perkins February 28, 2011 at 1:52 am

Compelling take. I’ve been enjoying seeing the varied perspectives on FPR regarding Wisconsin.

However, what interests me most is that you are in Tucson, Arizona, my town, reading our (sole surviving) local newspaper. What brings you to Tucson? I hope the rare snow/rain/hail made you feel at home today.

avatar The Dude February 28, 2011 at 5:26 am

I think you are right that “both sides” have played a role in forcing the issue and behaving in ways that are more appropriate than the business as usual approach to some serious problems. Both have quietly considered questions of violence, and of limits.

In a separate thought, I wanted to let you know that local autonomy is sadly non-existent and not really sought after either. The state fiscal structure keeps the cities and school on a tight leash. With a property tax levy of $247 million this year Milwaukee also got about $236 million in state aid. The total budget is $591 million.

avatar James Matthew Wilson February 28, 2011 at 9:03 am

I accept your central point, Russell. Indeed, a secondary inspiration for writing this was a comment my wife made. She was watching a news item on the Tea Party, in which a politician said that these are really exciting times and one is lucky to live in them. She, rightly, replied, “What is so lucky about living through a collapse?” The prudence in that question acknowledged, I side with the Tea Partier on that point. I’ve spent a fair amount of my career studying the 1930s, and there, too, I find the great terror and excitement of possibility opening up in politics something to be appreciated. Which Marxist was it again that dismissed liberal proceduralism as “meta-politics”? Well, in some respects I feel his point.

The actions of the unions certainly speaks to a capacity for politics in what had appeared a listless herd. My admiration for that is not destroyed — only mitigated — by my hopes that public unions become a thing of the past. I would carefully nuance this point, i.e. by marking the importance of the freedom of association in general, but I have seen that even mainstream Republicans have said as much.

Two last squibs:

a) What’s so wrong with being Arendtian? Sounds like a compliment to me.

b) Mark, I’m in Tucson visiting family (an annual excursion). If a Tucson Porch ever starts, I’d love to pay a visit.

avatar Zac March 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I already posted this comment on Mr. Fox’s piece, but I can never resist posting something reactionary for Mr. Wilson, my fellow Hoosier, and this is no exception. Please forgive me for the not-at-all unique repeat comment!

I might as well weigh in from the fine city of Madison. There are a number of reasons I find myself on the side of the protesters rather than Walker, and none of them have to do with support of public employee unions.

For one thing, Walker’s budget cuts are nothing if not egregiously selective: he’s exempted some of the costliest public employees solely for political self-preservation. This selectivity, coupled with his unwillingness to negotiate with public employees unopposed to cutbacks shows that Walker’s motivations are more partisan than practical: his primary targets are unions that typically give to democratic candidates, but conveniently not those that opposed his own election. Were his loyalties with budget cuts and not suppression of political enemies, we might have gained some ground.

Walker is no decentralist, no localist: his decision to give $117 million in tax-cuts to Wisconsin multinationals shows that his allegiances are large, not small in scale. The proposed budget would prohibit local governments from setting their own property tax rates, subverting the power of local communities to self-determine – a rather patronizing attempt to move power to the appropriate places. This should give any Front Porch defenders of Walker pause.

From this little ponzi scheme for the rich we learn that corporate interests are allowed a little belt loosening, but working families who happen to be employed by the state should suck it up and pull taut. The financial burden of our Governor’s hard-on for big business will be placed on the backs teachers and firemen. When Gov shuts a door on the middle class, he opens a window: non-Wisconsin interests like the Koch brothers are encouraged to enter through the back.

If a teacher is unable to negotiate benefits in Wisconsin, perhaps she’ll move to a state that will give her better. (I would say good riddance, let her go, but shrinking the teacher pool is no good for my kids.) The UW, for all its faults, does an excellent job of keeping young adults in Wisconsin, and keeping the UW academically competitive depends on attracting top brass to the state.

Lastly, let us not forget that union power may be a drain on the budget, but the state still has to pay teachers, nurses, cops, firefighters and prison employees, and no elimination of collective bargaining is going to change that. There are a great many ways to save taxpayer money, why doesn’t Walker fry some bigger fish? Because he likes the big fish. Why not privatize Wisconsin highways, implement a pay-as-you-drive system as in Illinois and Indiana, and shift transportation costs to those who are actually proud to be mobile? Or perhaps we could consider axing the utterly ineffective war on drugs, which clots our prisons and legal system, destroys our communities by keeping black-market thugs in business, and costs us far more to maintain than cutting bargaining rights would save.

In the end, this seems like more political quibbling and partisanship than practical budget cutting, and that’s the reason my Nader-voting, Ron Paul-loving neighbors and I would rather be out in front of the capitol with home-made signs, signing petitions against Citizen’s United and the voter ID act than sitting inside watching Koch-sponsored ads on tv telling us how a seven-year-old fireman’s daughter with a sign that says ‘raised on union labor’ is a freeloader.

avatar James Matthew Wilson March 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm

A compelling argument, Zac. It seems clear, and has only become clearer from your comment, that Walker is not serious about just those things I would want him to be serious about, i.e. decentralization, small government, and fiscal tight-fistedness (we don’t live in an age where fiscal responsibility will do; we must, rather, squeeze).

I would be interested in taking up the questions of freedom of association and unions in a Catholic social doctrine context, down the road.

P.S. the article on Catholicism and localism (which will be a whopper over several weeks) should roll out next week.

avatar Zac March 3, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Looking forward to it! The Catholic Worker Movement is one of the few Christian initiatives that I genuinely respect.

avatar Louisa March 3, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Hmm, I was all set to dislike Mr Wilson’s column and side with Zac (am also a Hoosier recently returned and would have never voted for Daniels under any circumstances) – until I read that Wilson mentions Catholic social doctrine re unions. Many of the comments about eliminating unions, good for Walker, et al seem to be made (to me) by people suffering no risk of their jobs or incomes being eliminated. All this concern for debt would be more believable had it included an end of tax cuts for the rich, end of corporate subsidies, end of tax havens, and an across-the-board set of spending cuts. No favoritism for the oligarchy (as there definitely has been throughout my lifetime in Indiana – it’s why I left the state for much of my adult life, why my siblings left, and many other bright, well-educated Hoosiers I’ve known couldn’t wait to leave). By the way, this is a complete aside but I can’t resist – why is there never any idea on the part of leadership in any state for shared sacrifice, as in certain historical Asian figures (Uesugi Harunobu, about whom I learned from no less than the Indianapolis Star in 1993, comes to mind? I remember some distant story from some culture of great leaders who called for sacrifice – but themselves bore pain and hardship, not sitting above comfortably excluded from it?
Why are they exempt?

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm


Sorry I haven’t kept up with this discussion, but I’ve appreciated it nonetheless. Apropos to your comment…

I would be interested in taking up the questions of freedom of association and unions in a Catholic social doctrine context, down the road.

…you might want to look at this piece of mine, in which I talk about Protestant vs. Catholic approaches to unions with a friends of mine.

I’ll probably be putting something else on the Wisconsin situation up early next week.

avatar Brad Lundell March 9, 2011 at 2:33 pm

James, “media coordinator” is the new lingo for librarian.

Nice piece and great comments. Living (and lobbying) in Minnesota, it’s been fun watching the action in our neighbor to the East and will be interesting to witness the denouement when (if?) it arrives.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins March 9, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Mr. Wilson, I see you have rediscovered class struggle! Karl Marx would be proud of you! In essence, you have announced that “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. Between these two contending classes, a struggle must go on until…”

But we all know life is more complex than that, and human beings are too individualized and ornery, coming in too many varieties and combinations of different characteristics for too many reasons, genetic, social, economic, and God knows why else, to fit such neat little syllogisms.

Now, as a sometime shop steward, and withdrawn member in good standing of a union that represents both private sector and public sector employees, I will be the first to say that union work rules have become a bit ossified and uncreative. There was never such a thing as sick days where I worked. The company (private, working under a public contract) offered that after fifteen years, workers would be entitled to two days of sick leave. This is a place where the turnover is so rapid that I rose half way up the seniority list in one year.

Now I had a common sense proposal, which neither union officers (trained in the old school Way Things Are Done), nor management (genuinely disinterested in the welfare of their employees), were interested in. Its true, sick days are subject to abuse, and cost money. If I had ten sick days a year, and used them all, it would cost as much as giving me a 60 cent hourly raise. But, I also recall the young working mother issued a “final warning” after twice in one month being absent to take her son to the hospital in a documented emergency. They didn’t care. She should have had some sick days. Further, when someone who is driving a motor vehicle with passengers drags themselves to work with a flu causing vertigo and blurred vision, its a safety hazard. So, how about, each worker gets to choose how many sick days, from zero to ten, they want. One half the total cost of these days, divided by 26 will be deducted from each paycheck. Any unused days can be rolled over to the next year, reducing the level of deductions from next year’s pay checks. Maybe the employer could kick in a full days pay as a bonus for anyone who didn’t take any sick days all year. Balance the costs and inventives.

Yes, we need creative solutions like that, which recognize that everything isn’t mine or yours. Governor Walker isn’t about creative solutions. He’s nothing but a snake oil salesman. Since I still live in the midwest, I’ve seen him up close for eight years. Thank God the county supervisors have kept him on a short leash the last eight years, but the current Republican majority in the legislature hasn’t.

If plutocrats are pocketing billions while workers children are starving and the family still uses an outhouse in the back yard, a good strong union making them fork over some of the money is essential. If the company is truly (and not by mere accountants’ tricks) operating in the red, it can’t forever pay out money that doesn’t exist. Walker, however, is the kind of “pro life” character who wants the little bastards to live on gruel after the lazy slut is required to deliver a baby, because she’s going to work fourteen hours a day for a pittance. When he became county executive, the first thing he tried to do was to tell the manager of the county bus system to negotiate a cut in health benefits that had just been negotiated less than a year previous. Sorry jack, a contract is a contract.

He hates unions because he craves power. To call his work a sign that the excesses of public sector unions are finally being confronted is rather like announcing that the 1933 “Enabling Act for Removing the Distress of People and Reich” was a refreshing sign that Germany’s inflation problem was being addressed at last. Hermann Goering’s words would fit Walker to a t: “my measures will not be crippled by any judicial thinking… I don’t have to worry about justice; my mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more!”

Oh don’t worry, Scotty won’t be building concentration camps or ovens. He lacks the genius for that, and (one of the benefits of a finely balanced constitutional republic with a substantial judicial branch), he lacks the capacity. We’ll muddle along, and we may even recall three Republican senators, then Walker himself.

avatar theotherjimmyolson March 10, 2011 at 11:34 pm

I was all ears until I got to the phrase, Saul Alinsky playbook, at which point I realized how shallow the well. 99% of the wealth and power isn’t enough?

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