Look at that crowd of demonstrators! Is that Cairo? Is that Tripoli? No, it’s downtown Madison, Wisconsin. That surging crowd of demonstrators at the state capital are school teachers struggling to protect their economic future. Governor Scott Walker wants to balance his state’s budget, a commendable goal, but he wants to accomplish it by slashing wages and benefits of state employees and eliminating their collective bargaining rights. Those efforts are being watched by other governors. The unions recognize that what they are dealing with is not just a budget shortfall in Madison but a determined effort by strong forces in our society to break the back of the labor union movement.
The high point of organized labor was in the 1950’s when a third of all American workers belonged to the unions. Today, that figure is less than 15%. Of those who are in unions, more than 50% of them are in the public employee unions. If these unions can be taken out, then what is left of the American labor movement will be but a shadow of its former self. It is the realization of this fact that has generated so much support from other union members and from the citizens at large. The recent CBS poll showed that Americans oppose cutting union organizing rights by more than two to one and that is one of the best signs for organized labor in many years.
With the decline of union membership, we have also seen a steady decline of the incomes of all workers in middle class employees in this country. If we match that with the concentration of wealth among the top 1% of earnings, it has reached levels not seen in almost 100 years. Peter Steinfels, reviewing the book Winner-Take-All Politics stated, “Our democracy has become the most economically unequal nation in the advanced world.” This did not happen by accident. Commonweal magazine reminds us in their online issue of February 28th, which will appear in print on March 11th, that “over the past three decades business and corporate interests has spent billions to limit taxation, constrained the reach of government, delegitimize unions and attack any effort to distribute the nation’s wealth more equitably. Institutions that used to look out for the welfare of the average American worker have disappeared or looked the other way – and that includes the Democratic Party. Is it any wonder that the average citizen is so alienated from the government or that the nation’s politics have become so bitter and confrontational.”
In my opinion, this downward trend is destructive not just for the individuals who are hurt by it, but for democracy itself. For the market to work in a free economy, workers must have a say in the decisions that affect them and their families well-being. The situation is so bad right now that it may well be that we will see a resurgence of union organizing efforts in this country.