Michael Meeropol: Some Disturbing Implications of the Results from the Recall Election in Wisconsin

My wife, Ann and I have fond memories of the time we lived in Wisconsin.  I got my Ph D from the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  Ann, taught in the public schools and our son was born in Milwaukee.  We have always had a great deal of respect for the great progressive traditions of the State of Wisconsin.

Thus, when Governor Scott Walker introduced a budget bill into the State Legislature that would not merely cut pensions of government workers but strip them of all collective bargaining rights, I was heartened by the outpouring of opposition within the state.

For those interested in following the ongoing struggle, I recommend the organization We Are Wisconsin which can be accessed at http://www.wearewisconsin.org/events/.  They have not given up despite the defeat in June and continue to organize people to help convince their neighbors that the struggle for workers’ rights is indivisible – that the idea that private sector workers have interests that contradict those of public sector workers is a cruel (but apparently successful) effort to play “divide and conquer.”  In addition, We Are Wisconsin focuses its attention on other policies of the Walker Administration that are inimical to the interests of the vast majority of Wisconsin citizens.  In addition, there are two fine books about the struggle in Wisconsin.  The first is It Started In Wisconsin:  Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest.   (W.W. Norton, 2012) This book is edited by Paul and Mari Jo Buhle who went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison before going on to distinguished careers as historians.  It includes contributions from many ordinary Wisconsinites as well as nationally known figures such as John Nichols and Michael Moore.  It is an outstanding combination of personal stories, political analysis and historical context.   The other book is Wisconsin Uprising, Labor Fights Back edited by Michael D. Yates for Monthly Review Press (2012).]

The Walker budget demanded that state workers surrender hard earned pension rights and at the same time granted significant tax reductions to corporations.  On top of this, the bill also stripped away the workers’ ability to bargain collectively with state government into the future.

Even when the unions (reluctantly I’m sure) accepted all of the budget’s cuts, the Governor refused to modify his plan to eviscerate the unions.  Later, we learned that this was a strategy of “divide and conquer” whereby public sector unions would be weakened – perhaps destroyed – in Wisconsin.  The next step planned is passage of a so-called “Right to Work” law that outlaws the union shop thereby eviscerating private sector unions.

In a previous commentary, I showed that the decline in union membership had been part of the reason for the stagnation in the incomes of year round full time workers over the previous decades.  People NOT in unions benefit from the existence of strong unions because employers must at least approximate union wages in order to attract and retain employees when a significant percentage of the labor force is covered by union contracts.  With unions representing less than 10% of private sector workers, the pressure on employers to pay higher wages has virtually disappeared – and with it, median real wage increases – which have been basically flat since the late 1970s!]

Focusing only on politics, it is important to understand that in the post Citizens United world of billion dollar election campaigns, unions provide the only counter-weight to massive infusions of campaign donations from groups like the Chamber of Commerce as well as from shadowy billionaires who finance organizations like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.  If unions are destroyed, then business and billionaires will own the American political system.

The Wisconsin recall election was a test.  Can mobilizing people door to door, phone bank to phone, rally after rally convince a majority of the electorate not to be taken in by the $58 million dollar propaganda campaign bought by Governor Walker and outside groups?

By the way, what was the message of that $58 million?  For one, union members in the public sector “exploit” ordinary taxpayers – thus Unions have to be “reined in” –  Another message:  the recall campaign was a bunch of sore losers who were demanding a “do over” after losing the 2010 election.

The Wisconsin election demonstrated that money could trump people.  Divide and conquer works.  Abraham Lincoln said, you CAN fool all of the people SOME of the time.  Right now, we appear to be in one of those times.  Americans are upset by the failure of the economy to deliver on the promise that every generation will achieve a higher standard of living than the previous one.  This has not been true for the majority over the last 30 years.

Instead of blaming the system which sucks money from the bottom of the income distribution upwards to the top 10%, the top 1% and most significantly the top ONE TENTH OF ONE PERCENT many Americans who are hanging on in the middle seem obsessed that poor people, immigrants, and some other groups of workers might be getting TOO MUCH --- 

[Many readers of my commentaries know this important source which measures the extraordinary increase in inequality since 1979.  http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2010.pdf.]

On a recent plane trip we sat next to a woman who initiated a conversation about some of these issues.  She seemed to be simply repeating what she probably heard on Fox News, but one thing she said was from her heart – “My mother was a factory worker and she made $65 an hour.  That’s too much.”

[The conversation was in many ways surreal.  She comes from Wisconsin and told us her husband had been laid off a couple of times.  She asked me what “people” outside of Wisconsin thought of Governor Walker and I tried diplomatically to say – “It depends on who you talk to – some think he’s doing a great job and others think he’s destroying hard-earned rights of workers…”  At one point she waxed indignant at the government’s losing money on the Solar Energy company that went bankrupt.  I tried to say it was a pittance compared to the money lost because of tax cuts to the rich, etc. but it made no impression.  The statement about her mother was particularly shocking to us.  With hindsight, Ann and I wonder if that $65 figure was accurate but perhaps her mother was a long time assembly line employee in a unionized factory.]

I didn’t want to get into an argument but what I wanted to ask was WHY is $65 an hour too much for a factory worker – And how much did the CEO of the company make?  (Certainly it was enough that the company could afford the wages paid to their workers.)

When Fox News, the Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers can get ordinary Americans thinking like this woman, it is no wonder that Scott Walker survived the recall and actually won by a larger margin than when he was first elected in 2010.

http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2010.pdfI really fear for my country.

Michael Meeropol recently retired as Professor of Economics at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is the author of Surrender, How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution.

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