Last Saturday I went down to the Newberry Library in Chicago, where across the street in Washington Square Park, they have an annual celebration of and reenactment of the Bughouse Square debates. It harkens back to the days of the Haymarket Affair, a day when there was a labor movement in America, when people would get up on their soapbox and tell the world how it was.
It’s always a fun day and was quite well attended this year—there was finally some better weather; the last couple years it was almost too hot to be outside. The festivities started with a great reenactment of a speech by a woman who was there, whose husband was caught up in the Haymarket riots, and was ultimately executed for fighting for a fair working day.
Before breaking out into the four corners of the park for smaller Bughouse debates, they had one main debate for everyone. The subject this year was public sector unions. Unfortunately, the guy defending public sector unions wasn’t a great speaker or as organized as he could have been, though he hit a few of the salient points. The guy arguing for the Scott Walker position, that public sector unions needed to be abolished, was a better speaker, but what he said was ultimately laughable. So I laughed, and cat-called, as did others. Indeed, that is half the point of the Bughouse debates; audience participation.
I’ve had the debate about public sector unions many times with friends. Often it goes something like they heard of or knew of one bad teacher somewhere that couldn’t be gotten rid of because of the teacher’s union, so that proves that the unions are horrible and just protect lazy, bad workers. As someone who taught high school for a few years, trust me, no one stays in the job because it is so easy, such an easy way to steal a paycheck from the state.
The best explanation of the position I’ve heard (though not that day at Bughouse) was from a conservative friend who calmly laid it out. The government is all of us, he said. Therefore, when we give state employees and their unions anything, we are taking that away from us, from you and me, from all of us. He seemed to think that was a persuasive argument.
What I heard him saying was that there are some things we think important enough that we need to all band together to make sure they get done well, because they aren’t things that private enterprise or the free market can provide. And that we want to make sure the people who decide to do these jobs as their career have lower pay and fewer rights than workers in the private sector, because if they got paid well it would really just be money taken out of OUR pockets.
Made little sense to me. If these jobs we’ve decided are so important that we’re going to pool all our resources to make sure they get done—teaching, fire-fighting, policing our streets, etc.—then wouldn’t we want to make sure those workers were well paid and respected and were doing at least as well as their counterparts in the private sector? Because wouldn’t that be the only way to ensure that good people, even the best people, went in to public service and did those jobs well?
The people who want the unions to be ended are the same ones who have worked forever to ensure that teachers are poorly paid, and then they act surprised that the best people don’t go into teaching. Their position makes such little sense one barely knows where to start in knocking it down. The guy at Bughouse who was trying to convince us that public sector unions were evil tried to make the case that everyone, I mean everyone, worked only and solely for one thing; to make as much money as they could. That was part of why we had to get rid of the unions, because they were squeezing us dry.
Hearing that I had two thoughts. One, the whole argument didn’t seem so much that unions were bad, but that he thought the negotiators on the state side were bad and gave away too much. Well, those negotiators are the elected officials, so if you don’t like the deals they negotiated, then elect different people if you can. That’s called, you know, democracy. (Remember, this doesn’t apply to Scott Walker and his anti-union movement in Wisconsin, as he never mentioned unions in his campaign; he simply blind-sided the voters.)
The second thought was that these are people who simply don’t believe in government or democracy. They’ve got theirs and they want to keep it. They believe the myth that they are somehow self-sufficient and self-make in their wealth, and that it has nothing to do with the society they live in and that they were never helped by the government. They think the growing inequality in our society is a good thing, because they believe they are somehow a superior species—the extremes of this are those like Paul Ryan who worship at the altar of Ayn Rand.
This is all relevant this week as the recall elections for several state senators in Wisconsin are only a few days away. If the Democrats can flip three seats, which looks very possible, they will regain the senate and can slow down Walker’s attempt to destroy government (and I guess ultimately his own job with it?) and can begin us on the path towards working together again to make a better society, a better world. A new study from Harvard that was just published shows that unions are indeed responsible for the strength of the middle class, for higher wages for everyone, union workers and non-union workers alike. (For what it’s worth, one of the cat-callers at the Bughouse debate reminded us that the first thing Hitler did as he rose to power was to get rid of all unions and make them illegal. I’m just saying…)
The biggest obstacle in the recall elections isn’t, of course, the will of the people and getting them to understand and vote for Democrats. No, the biggest obstacle is overcoming election fraud and voter suppression efforts. Walker has been planning to close DMV sites that register voters in highly democratic areas, tying to hold down voter turn out. A huge public push back seems to have halted the plan. And a couple conservative organizations (that appear to be funded by the Koch brothers) have been sending fake absentee ballots to democrats—only to democrats, not Republicans—which have a fake address to return them to, and which say the ballots need to be sent back by August 11. The election is August 9, and anything that arrives after that date won’t count. I conclude they know they can’t win the election on the merits, so they try to rig them. You will draw your own conclusions.