Every middle- and working-class person in this country has a stake in what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and everywhere else there is a pernicious attempt to strip public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights. "Solidarity" is a word that has lost much of its vigor, but without it American workers are sunk. Either we are all Wisconsin teachers or we are all on our own against powerful and well-funded forces bent on destroying the last vestige of power that average people have over their working lives.
It's time for Americans to turn off the latest Real Housewives and begin understanding this pivotal moment. The winter of 2011 will be known as the season when workers finally shook off their torpor to discover they are under siege by billionaires like Charles and David Koch and their Republican handmaidens, or it will go down as the last gasp of the labor movement.
What is apparent in the numbers of Americans who have expressed hostility toward the Wisconsin teachers and public sector unions is that the opposition's divide-and-conquer strategy has worked. The human impulse toward jealousy is easily exploited, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other antiunion Republican governors have effectively used it to turn worker against worker.
They are selling the story line that it's not the financial meltdown caused by Wall Street banks that is to blame for our country's tough economic times and states' consequent budget woes — it's teachers making $50,000 who have the gall to expect a decent pension at the end of a long career.
People are lashing out at government workers because they are frustrated with their own job insecurity and lack of retirement benefits. That anger should be directed toward corporate employers who have unilaterally shifted the burden of retirement risk onto workers and held down workers' real pay by failing to share corporate profits. But if employees expressed these resentments, they would be fired. So they keep quiet and turn against teachers, garbage collectors and state bureaucrats, who suddenly appear privileged by comparison.
With only 6.9 percent of private-sector workers in unions — down from about a third at the peak — there is little appreciation any more for the value of collective bargaining rights and their essential role in human self-determination. But in international affairs, these rights are well understood. Each year, U.S. embassies compile human rights reports on their respective countries that analyze the state of people's rights to organize and bargain collectively. Since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, we've considered this key to empowering people and enabling a stable middle class.
The same is true for American workers. In the United States, the tangible benefits of unionization are incontestable. Workers in unions enjoy a median wage that is 28 percent higher than nonunion workers. Union workers are 50 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance, and three times as likely to be covered by a defined-benefit pension. But it's the way in which a union gives workers a voice on the job that adds incalculable value to a working life.
You can hear that reflected in the protests of the Wisconsin teachers, who have conceded on the money issues — agreeing to contribute toward their pension and health benefits — but refuse to give up the right to negotiate working conditions. Contract protections that reward loyal service with added job security are especially important in a climate where school superintendents are told to cut expenses. Otherwise, inevitably, the most expensive — read experienced — teachers would be susceptible to layoffs.
If the fight in Wisconsin was about money, Walker would be at the bargaining table solidifying his victory. Instead, he is using the budget as a convenient red herring for the real Republican agenda of decimating public sector unions, which are not only Democratically leaning, but are the last bulwark of middle-class organizing.
Across the country, Republican governors are writing an epitaph for America's middle class. Wisconsin teachers' struggle to retain their bargaining rights is our fight, too, whether we know it or not.