[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS
The battle may be distant from here, but considering that in the early hours of this morning, the Wisconsin Assembly passed the “Budget Repair Bill” which tens of thousands of protesters have spent the better part of two weeks demonstrating against, perhaps something needs to be said. It’s a bill that, should the Wisconsin Senate approve it (which it can’t under present rules so long as enough Democratic senators stay in hiding, robbing the Senate of the quorum needed to vote), and should Governor Scott Walker sign it (which he, of course, would in an instant; it’s his bill, after all) would, among other things, significantly cripple the power of most public employee unions in the state.

Given that the unions being targeted by this bill have long since signaled that they’d be willing to accept the cuts and budget reforms that the governor and Wisconsin Republican legislators are looking for, it has become fairly clear that this struggle is fundamentally about political power, not fiscal realities, however important they may be. It is a question about whose power over our economic landscape is to be respected, and to what degree. It places on one side the bondholders and bankers and CEOs who ultimately (and, perhaps, legitimately) demand a certain level of unregulated austerity if making investments and expenditures is to continue to appear appealing to them, or the workers and homeowners and citizens on whose behalf those programs and regulations–despite their admittedly often less-than-stellar track record–were designed:

The deal Wisconsin made with its state employees was simple: Accept lower wages than you could get in the private sector now in return for better pensions and health-care benefits when you retire. Now Walker wants to renege on that deal. Rather than stiff the banks, in other words, he wants to stiff the teachers–but the crucial twist he’s added, the one that’s sent tens of thousands of workers into the streets, is that he wants to make sure they can’t fight back once he does it.

The reason you can’t stiff bondholders is that they can make a state or country regret reneging on the deals they’ve made. They can increase borrowing costs far into the future, slowing economic growth and, through the resulting economic pain, throwing politicians out of office. That gives them power. An ordinary teacher does not have access to such artillery. Unless, of course, she’s part of a union.

There are, to be sure, plenty of reasons to be concerned about the power of public employee unions–they can, like all other large organizations, become self-interested and corrupt, and thus stifle the productive actions of individuals and communities concerned with achieving common goods. The same can be said, of course, about all unions, in the same way the same can be said about all business and corporations, all school boards and church committees, all bureaucracies and agencies. But some say that public employee unions are an especially troubling case; that because their ultimate employer is technically themselves, and all the rest of us–everyone who pays taxes, in other words–public employee unions face a unique moral hazard, a very specific incentive to capture votes rather than negotiate, and thus act like an institutionalized political party within the bureaucracy of the state, rather than a “countervailing power” within the open market. Trade unions are a classic example of just such a power, and at least potentially a highly democratic example as well: organizing individual workers into a force which corporations, who enjoy the benefits of capital (and thus also the political power which an electoral system open to massive donations, never more so than now), would have to reckon with.

Does that logic fall apart with public employee unions? Many prominent opponents of the power of large corporations, including the father of the New Deal himself, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thought so; the Wagner Act was about empowering the workers at private firms to demand respect from business owners, not enabling government employees to do the same. But perhaps all the changes in the American economy over the past three generations–some for good, many for worse–have changed this calculation as well. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared, as the country has grown wealthier and the technology making it possible for businesses to move their work to poorer (and thus, for them, more profitable) parts of the world has proliferated. Much of our country’s economic lifeblood is now tied up in service and information-related jobs, in health and education and sanitation and livability and public spaces and environmental resources. Many of those jobs have been, from the beginning, rightly considered a public–that is, a government–responsibility, rather than a private one; many others have been moved, over the decades, from corporate hands to public ones (and some, to be sure, have also been moved back again). And that presents the question of whether people who hold those jobs, whether at the local or state or federal level, ought to be able to organize, to bargain collectively, to strike if necessary–to act as their own “countervailing power” against the government (which arguably has long been dominated by corporate and Wall Street interests, whether the Democrats or the Republicans were in control, anyway) that employees them. (See more on this issue here.)

For folks like myself, folks attracted to the ideas of local power and economic democracy, the fact these demonstrations have erupted in Wisconsin is significant. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette led Wisconsin as a U.S. representative and senator, as its governor, and as a presidential candidate for years. He was very much a Progressive, and for perhaps most who identify themselves as localists or decentralists today, the Progressives were the worst kind of bureaucratic busybodies. But the fact remains that the causes which he fought for and against–against imperialism and powerful corporate trusts and child labor, for civil liberties and union protection and municipal independence–are very much part of the foundation upon which most of whatever real respect for “place” which has survived in the mostly urbanized, mostly interconnected America of today was originally built. (The union protesters and their sympathizers in Wisconsin absolutely recognize this fact; Governor Walker is, perhaps, trying to pass that historical reality over.) Intact neighborhoods, family-supporting wages, local authority: there were, of course, many components to all these–stronger churches and civic organizations being one, a less acquisitive and individualistic social and economic mentality in the first part of the last century being another–but one would have to engage in a great deal of historical revisionism to claim that the laws which protected and empowered unions, the laws which guaranteed the rights or workers or organize and make demands and negotiate with those in power, didn’t play a huge role as well.

One might hope that, in a different socio-economic world, local democracy and economic independence wouldn’t depend upon defending, as I believe at the present moment they must be, something as potentially troubling as public employee unions. Christopher Lasch noted years ago the inevitable difficulties for and the dangerous backlash against any truly authentic community populism which comes when the efforts to empower workers through trade unions result in the emergence of “Big Labor.” Libertarian-minded individuals, who presumably ought to favor the freedom of association which unions at least potentially represent, tend to the current argument (especially the argument involving public employee unions), as ambiguous at best: clearly unions are an important weapon in the arsenal of individuals and communities seeking to protect themselves as the powers of capital and corporations, but the strategies and structures of today’s unions leave much to be desired–among other things, they set aside any more radical (populist or distributist or socialist) critique of the contemporary capitalism, in favor of a never-ending (and, in a world where globalized neoliberalism is dominant, mostly losing) battle over wages and living conditions. Some smart observers suggest that unions have outlived whatever usefulness they may have once had in terms of making a more equal and more empowered America, and that other strategies are now called for.

For myself, I see a continuation of the same tension that has been, to my mind, front and center throughout this ongoing crisis in global finance capitalism, and all the ways in which most of us–as workers and homeowners and voters and farmers and teachers and citizens–are implicated in it: what kind of compromises with the system should we make? How far should those compromises go? What kind of economic or political tools should we employ in those compromises? Or the present system–a system of large and perhaps systematically polarized and paralyzed governments, of corporate powers which are perhaps constitutionally incapable of considering questions of democracy and community when tabulating their bottom lines, of resource depletion, of credit-and-debt-dependent economies, of globalization and dislocation and consumption on a massive scale–so worthless or so near collapse as to make any attempt to reform or work through or within it pointless? I’m not able to resolve that tension; perhaps none of us can, until the crisis of peak oil, or some other crisis, renders the issue moot. But until then, I know what I believe in: I believe that the capitalist market, for all the good it produces (and it produces a lot), makes inevitable a distribution of power between employers and employed which is unequal–and that inequality, invariably, will work against the long-term flourishing of families and neighborhoods and communities within which the employed, those without independent access to politically-empowering and protecting wealth, dwell. Unions are certainly not a perfect tool for addressing this imbalance of power; they are often a defective tool, in fact. But they remain a tool, and one worth defending. For all the caveats and concerns we may have about the proper way to consider relations between business and government and labor at the present time, I would hope no localist worth his or her salt would blithely agree with those who would wave “larger fiscal realities” to distract us while they take that tool away.

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  1. I’m always saddened to find warm fuzzy feelings take the place of clear thinking in localist forums. The “progressive” agenda — represented by these hyper-politicized unions — is a subversive siren and the bane of natural localism; it inevitably tends to remote, centralized oligarchy, to coercive collectivism, to the diminution of the individual yeoman. It’s a bargain you don’t make.

    Romancing purple shirted thugs bussed in by national bosses is beyond this localist.

  2. HA,

    I’ll happily agree with you that the agenda which most unions have pushed over the past half-century has indeed tended to promote centralization and remoteness–that’s why I stuck Christopher Lasch’s prescient reference to “Big Labor” in my post. But are you really so confident that corporations also don’t promote their own coercive oligarchies? Power corrupts, and all that.

    If you just want to reject the whole process of bargaining over who has power in the marketplace, I salute you, and I hope you enjoy your yeoman existence on your farm (which you own yourself, and irrigate with water you obtain from your own well, etc.). To be truthful, there’s a part of me that longs for such an existence. But to be even more truthful, there’s another part of me that is willing to work with what the modern marketplace has wrought, and so I’m going to use whatever tools I can to make it more egalitarian, more respectful of ordinary workers and citizens, more empowering for where they choose to make their lives. Unions have been such a tool in the past, and I think they can still be such a tool today.

    And as for “purple shirted thugs bussed in by national bosses”…wasn’t in the Tea Party which bused people into Wisconsin?

  3. A localist would be decrying the fact that the matter of teacher salaries and contracts is being decided on the state level. A localist would favor breaking up of the agencies that exert centralized, state control over education, and giving it back to the local communities.

    Russell Arben Fox is about as much a localist as is British Petroleum.

  4. Your two critics here are right; unfortunately the most powerful “localists” in Wisconsin are public employees, especially in Milwaukee where they are compelled to live within the city limits by law.

    The cops and teachers in particular–*some* of whom are smart, delightful, and capable people–have an extremely poor track record in the services and results they are supposed to deliver, and they’re an enormous cost hog that’s breaking the bank. County employees and the firefighters rank up there too, but they actually provide some quality services and, unlike the MTEA and MPA have not so conspicuously blocked all reform efforts to the point that even thinking about the slightest accountability measures is high thoughtcrime. In entirely legal and deniable ways they have systems that effectively rape the resident population in more and less figurative ways.

    Walker’s aim is to shrink government to a size he can drown in a bathtub after selling off its assets, like power plants, to the Koch brothers in no-bid deals. This is not a wonderful idea, IMHO. But the worst thing he’s doing to cities is shielding the cops and firefighters while softening the way for cuts everywhere else in the remaining bits of municipal budgets. This will make it harder for invertebrate pols to make the hardest cuts to the toughest unions. On the other hand, this may be what they need to grow a pair and focus the community on the insanity of 5/6 of spending going to wages and benefits, and 2/3 of that spending going to cops and firefighters. The school system and county may just be done for, even without the cuts Walker is laying on us.

    Lacking a real reform movement, or merely Democrats who can do more than pay the unions and piss into the wind, these blows are a change that should force a crisis upon people who really need it. If anything ever reproduces the kind of populist progressivism you admire on the distant horizon, it will be people getting kicked to the curb by politicians owned by plutocrats. If I got one thing against the union chappies, it’s this – no one gives it to you. You have to take it.

  5. John, I’ll happily grant that I’m likely not nearly as much a localist as you (I called myself “compromised,” remember), and that you have a point about the existence of state agencies, unions, and boards which centralize decisionmaking and negotiating tactics at higher than the local community level. But if you do favor breaking up such things, then it seems to me you must also–assuming you don’t want a massively unequal playing field, which would result in an even greater economic dominance of localities in the marketplace than we have now–break apart the states themselves, and any business interests which can accumulate capital (and thus political influence) across county lines (or maybe even local neighborhood lines?), to say nothing of the United States of America itself and all corporate entities within it.

    Is that your position? If so, then as I said above to HA, I salute your Jeffersonian determination (though I wonder what legal tool you would use that would be powerful enough to accomplish that end). For myself, I continue to believe that the best we can and should do is find tools and means of articulating and defending the interests of families and communities through countervailing powers, whatever their pitfalls, and that includes unions. That’s delicate work, I’ll also grant you, but somehow, I don’t quite see it as falling in the same camp as a BP.

  6. Dude, thanks for your comment, especially your insight into the relative track records of the police, firefighter, teacher, and county employee unions in Wisconsin. I wasn’t aware of the city-resident requirement in Milwaukee. I haven’t studied such policies in the past, so I don’t know much about them, but nonetheless I’ve found myself admiring the localities that have tried to institute them (often against, as you might guess, the protests of unions).

    If anything ever reproduces the kind of populist progressivism you admire on the distant horizon, it will be people getting kicked to the curb by politicians owned by plutocrats.

    And you may be right–some folks that I know are convinced that defending union power is defending a tool that has outlived its usefulness, a tool that has become entrenched in the status quo. In their view, Walker is engaged in what the Marxists would call “heightening the contradictions”: only by busting union power will people organize into some more effective response than the unions provide. And, in this sense, you’re right that the worst thing about Walker’s plan is that he was exempting unions that supported him politically, the police and firefighter unions, which–as you present it–tend to be some of the worst of the lot. For whatever it’s worth, though, I’m just not willing to sign on with such a revolutionary strategy as yet.

  7. To me from the sidelines, it’s new wants-to-be entrenched power fighting old entrenched power. No surprise, this is America–no discussion of what our collective “good city” or state would look like, and what we can agree to afford. Really frustrating.

    Here’s something I wrote about in 2007, after watching the city budget hearings on public works. (The source linked to is mine.)

    The DPW union rep was something else. For lack of local journalists watching this, my writing was the reason the issue got attention–because it supplied talk radio (of which I’m not a fan) with half a day of material. The establishment probably wished it just went under the rug. That gives you some sense of the frustrating context. After the cops and firefighters, DPW is the 3rd biggest budget piece, and altogether I think they have around 80% of it. You can find the gory financial detail online if you want.

  8. Dude,

    To me from the sidelines, it’s new wants-to-be entrenched power fighting old entrenched power. No surprise, this is America–no discussion of what our collective “good city” or state would look like, and what we can agree to afford. Really frustrating.

    Good comment–on the level of theory, I think you’re on to something important here. As James Matthew Wilson observes in his post, to the degree that the argument in Wisconsin is, as I allege, primarily about political power, then there is little reason to ascribe too much concern for “justice” or “common good” to either side. I can make my arguments to see one set of interests as closer to such than the other, and the other side can make their arguments which allege the same, but neither of us are really thinking beyond the frame of interests. And yes, that is frustrating.

    I have to ask though, for whatever its worth: exactly which side of the current stand-off you would characterize as the “entrenched” power in Wisconsin, and which as the “wants-to-be-entrenched” power? It seems to me that there are valid arguments going both ways. Walker could be defending the long-standing power of bondholders and bankers and capitalists to impose austerity upon state budgets without increasing tax revenue, while the teachers unions and others are the defiant minority power demanding the promises extracted comparatively recently–say over the past few decades–not be lost. Then again, perhaps Walker and the Republicans represent the up-and-coming, reform-minded, entrepreneurial, libertarian folks who just want to break apart Wisconsin’s calcified, possibly corrupt, social contract, while the unions in this case are the old guard. What do you think?

  9. Yes, I think it is all about power. It’s refreshing to see something approaching a real fight over concrete things though–maybe it will become more intelligent, or the war of interests will be forced to turn to common good questions if no single interest can prevail, if all are discredited, or if something else new and unexpected happens.

    I have never picked up any information about bondholders, bankers, and capitalists for the role they play, but I have probably been too focused on the microlocal to notice. In the last few decades, successful organizing of WI teachers’ unions earned them good pay and political clout. (http://www.milwaukeemagazine.com/murphyslaw/default.asp?NewMessageID=26094)

    The teachers’ unions don’t seem like a “minority power”–that would be the public and non-public alternatives–but from Walker’s perspective, I could see him thinking of his task as clearing a lot of tall weeds. He has not expressed any interest in reform yet, but he does seem to think like a pro-market libertarian as you describe.

  10. “The deal Wisconsin made with its state employees was simple: Accept lower wages than you could get in the private sector now in return for better pensions and health-care benefits when you retire. Now Walker wants to renege on that deal.”

    Do you have any support for this? Do you really believe, that after accepting Walker’s changes to the “deal” (which was never written in stone as it changes on pretty much a yearly basis), that private sector health benefits and pensions will be better? We do know that 2/3 of 8th graders in Wisconsin public schools can’t read proficiently (according to the Department of Education) despite the highest per pupil expenditures of any state in the midwest. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, public school teachers in Wisconsin earned an average of $75,587 in ages and benefits in 2010, up 9% from 1998.

    One can be pro-union and opposed to public service unions, as you noted FDR was. There’s an inherent conflict of interest with public service unions. The politicians force people to contribute to a union as a condition of employment, the unions take that money and give it to the politicians, and the politicians reward the unions by giving them richer deals at the taxpayers’ expense and making it a condition to employment that employees contribute to the union coffers.

    Libertarians support freedom of association–there is no freedom for the Wisconsin teachers to join the union or not–they must pay $700-$1000 per year as a condition of employment. No one that I know of is opposed to voluntary unions.

  11. The shift of good jobs from private enterprise to government is the deplorable genesis of this mess!

  12. 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.

  13. Walker and his nepotistic cronies have displayed a contempt for due process and public input which is deplorable. It is obvious that the Budget Repair Bill and Budget itself were substantially written well before the November election, but very few details were disclosed. The focus on killing Milwaukee-Madison High Speed Rail served as a useful distraction from the truly radical reshaping of state government they had in mind.

    There is much in the Walker program which undermines or elimiates local control. His ideologues are doing their best to destroy Regional Transit Authorities, for example. Municipalities and schools would loose authority to negotiate union contracts. Inflexible tax caps strip local units of government of the right to tax themselves as they see fit.

  14. Ah, at last, I knew there should be at least one voice at Front Porch Republic who could see clearly and think clearly, all the way from Kansas. From Milwaukee Wisconsin, thank you Russell, for telling it the way it is.

    John Gorentz, you haven’t done your homework. The state collective bargaining law simply authorized a collective bargaining process between teachers and local school districts. They couldn’t have such a process without explicit state authorization, just like Milwaukee County voters can’t transfer support of the local bus system from the property tax levy to a dedicated sales tax without legislative authorization (which is a legitimate and tragic problem with insufficient localization). School district collective bargaining is not standardized on a state wide basis. However, successive legislation, mostly Republican in origin, has put that bargaining into various straight jackets, which both school boards and local unions would (each for their own reasons) love to have removed. Scott Walker stands for nothing of the kind. He wants to reduce everyone not on his major campaign donor list to the status of peons, or as close as he can get.

    Back to Russell’s informed, insightful and erudite commentary: If we are going to deal with the problems created by large, ossified union bureaucracies (and as a former local shop steward, I know most of those problems better than anyone who has commented here), we need to look at the big distributist picture.

    What is an economy for? In the mind of Scott Walker, an economy is a means of taking money from the family paycheck, and funneling it to his masters in the concrete and highways industry. In the mind of the average capitalist, an economy is a series of manipulative resources (labor being one of them), which allow an enterprise to produce massive quantities of stuff, selling it for more than the amount invested, to consumers (who, quite incidentally, may be human beings). To an employee, an economy is a means of eking out a paycheck to the kids don’t starve.

    Originally, an “economy” was a means for people, human beings, those for whom the earth was made, to be fruitful and multiply, to REPLENISH the earth (as well as subdue it – raw nature was not a nice friendly place way back when), to obtain and make use of every herb bearing seed, and every tree, and the fruit of a tree yielding seed… etc.

    Now, until EVERYONE is on board with organizing an economy to nurture people, rather than “labor mobility” to serve the alienated abstraction of a corporate economy, debating whether unions are “good” or “bad” and trying to find something “good” in the like of Scott Walker is so much fruitless hot air. Then we have the substantial question of how to organize sufficient production to sustain a sanitary, healthy, lifestyle, and the level of technology that even allows us to contemplate photovoltaic cells, electric cars, solar heating, etc. — it takes a lot of rare earths, as do the computers we are all communication on… The solution is not to trash public sector employees.

    One reform I do support, in both teacher and prison guard unions, is recognition that when your job is to, in a sense, “handle” other human beings, rather than inanimate objects, your rights to bargain are limited by the necessity of humane, effective, and reasonably respectful treatment of those human beings. (I also favor getting consistently disruptive students OUT of the classroom, into a more specialized setting, but that’s yet another issue).

    As to the faux “workers v. taxpayers” issue, some reasonable recognition is needed that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Whatever we want government to deliver, we must specify how it will be paid for. If we want a tax cut, we should specify what we will do without from government. Right now, our politics are stuck between the Scylla of promising endless tax cuts with no pain, and the Charibydis of blessing every individual deserving cause with largesse, without specifying how it will be paid for. Taxpayers have no entitlement to the work of government employees at discounted rates – if we want something done, pay those who do the work. Public sector workers are indeed not entitled to vastly better pay and benefits than their neighbors, but on average, the private sector actually does pay better. Further, right now wage employees in the private sector are paid far too little, and THAT should be the point getting attention. It’s not on Scott Walker’s agenda.

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