Divided they fell in Wisconsin

America's labor movement demonstrated that everyday people could gain a soupcon of power over their working lives by standing together. It raised workers from degrading conditions to decent ones, bringing safety to factories and middle-class security to millions.

But 6/5/12 marks its demise. And with it goes the hope of resetting the scales of economic justice back to a time when workers got their fair share.

What slew workers' last hope of keeping the gains won in the 20th century was the 1 percenters who bankrolled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's hold on power.

Walker's recall fight to retain his job was sparked after he stripped public-sector employees of their collective bargaining rights. The election quickly became a referendum on the power of money vs. the power of people. The people lost by not standing together.

Walker's campaign outspent the opposition by more than 7 to 1. Money for Walker gushed in from out-of-state corporate titans with an interest in destroying unions.

Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who was planning to slime President Barack Obama by tying him to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, donated, along with his multimillionaire family, $140,000 to Walker's re-election campaign from January to March alone.

This victory gives Republican governors and their wealthy benefactors proof of concept. A flood of money can beat out a grass-roots campaign of passion and shoe leather. With enough outlandish TV ads, people can be convinced to vote against their economic interests, even in a place like Wisconsin, home of the great progressive Robert La Follette.

Now comes the harsh reality of an emboldened right wing that sees no political risk in dismantling whatever remains of workers' rights. In a widely viewed video, Walker quietly told a wealthy supporter last year that he planned to take unions down through a "divide and conquer" strategy with the elimination of public employee bargaining rights as a first step.

A joke that captures this approach made the rounds in Wisconsin a while ago: Billionaire David Koch is having lunch with a tea partier and a teachers' union rep. For dessert, the waiter brings a tray with a dozen cookies. Koch takes 11, leans over and whispers to the tea partier, "Watch out for that union rep; he wants your cookie." As Walker says, pit worker against worker. Shame on us that it works.

Walker's victory comes on top of the Republican landslide in 2010 that gave union-busting a huge boost. Indiana's Gov. Mitch Daniels made Indiana a right-to-work state, undermining union strength. Gov. John Kasich in Ohio eliminated public-sector worker bargaining rights, though the law was later repealed by voters. Their tactic is simple: Divert attention from Wall Street's reckless greed by claiming that a $50,000-a-year teacher with some job security and a pension is what's causing the state's economic troubles. Make workers jealous of one another. Keep them from standing together.

Look next to states like Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott has said the state would be better off without public-sector unions — just about the only union power that exists. And in the presidential race Mitt Romney can barely utter a paragraph without spitting out the term "labor bosses" in disgust.

Unions are what has given average people dignity and security. Both my parents hold master's degrees and put in long years as public school teachers in New York. My dad taught for 37 years. Today they are enjoying a reasonable retirement not due to their advanced degrees, but because they had a teachers' union to represent their interests when the budget cutters came calling.

In the Pinellas County School District, the teachers have been told the district wants to alter the employee health plan to impose a $2,500 deductible from the current no-deductible policy to help fill a $14 million shortfall. Were it not for the union, the district could have unilaterally imposed that draconian increase rather than having to negotiate for it.

Once unions are gone or completely toothless, the last bastion of people power will go with them. Feel helpless now? Just wait until there are no unions to hold on to what's left of worker rights or to challenge the 1 percenters in Washington when public policy is being made. Workers either stand together or fall apart.

Divided they fell in Wisconsin 06/09/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 9, 2012 5:30am]

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