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Ron Radosh

How the Left Sees the Union Crisis in Madison

February 22nd, 2011 - 9:01 am

We live in two different worlds. Try looking at the situation in Wisconsin through the eyes of the American Left. They are, as my colleague Roger L. Simon so aptly puts it, thoroughly reactionary. For the Left, there is no real fiscal crisis. The states can easily afford to give the public sector unions everything they ask for. There is one easy answer: tax the rich.

Because the great right-wing conspiracy has been so effective, due to its funding by the Koch brothers, the masses have been manipulated to vote for their own worst enemies. Marx’s theory of “false consciousness” has been proved once again. “What’s the matter with Kansas?”  indeed. If only they all read The Nation there would be no problem. And evidently, they don’t even read Paul Krugman. If they did, they would see that the great economist explained it all: the Right doesn’t care about reality; they just want power. Their real goal, says Krugman, is nothing less than “to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.”

Let us pause for a moment to ask whether Krugman is serious. The Wisconsin voters, having heard Governor Walker campaign on a promise to rein in the public sector unions and do something about Wisconsin’s debt crisis, not only voted him in, but voted in Republicans overwhelmingly in once Democratic districts. So democracy did its job, but not to Krugman’s liking. The people want an oligarchy.

For the entire Left, the budget is simply the excuse to gain power and crush the unions. The academic leftists, as expected, are also weighing in. On the History News Network site, leftist historian Mark Naison looks back nostalgically at the Flint, Michigan, sit-down strikes in 1936-37, seeing today’s Madison events as the modern equivalent — a watershed moment for the labor movement. Not even pausing to address the major differences between this era’s public sector unions and the assembly line industrial unions of the Depression era, Naison sees the strikes as simply about  “dignity and respect,” not income.

Naison reminds readers that the auto workers, helped by “numerous left-wing organizations,” occupied the factories, ending their occupation only when GM and U.S. Steel agreed to bargain collectively with the recently formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). So Naison calls for a similar movement today — urging delegations from every state in the union “to join the occupation and the protests and give whatever financial aid and legal support is necessary to teachers who are keeping the local schools closed.”

Of course, no sooner did his article hit the web than the union asked teachers to return to work. Their leadership realizes that their action has produced a huge backlash among working men and women in Wisconsin, who can’t go to work because they have to stay home to watch the kids. Besides resenting that kind of behavior at their own jobs, they have nothing compared to what the public sector workers have in their contracts with the state.

Joining him in a similar assessment is the socialist labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein. At least Lichtenstein realizes that the nation is talking about public sector unions, not industrial unions of a bygone age. He acknowledges the real question: “Who will pay for the budget deficits that bedevil so many states?” But he also knows the other question is whether or not “the unions [will] continue to be a backbone of the Democratic Party….” He also acknowledges another truth — that “public employees are far more likely to be unionized than private-sector workers.”

Lichtenstein, however, does not comprehend the nature of what has become a real sweetheart deal for the public sector unions. Union PACs use member dues to support and elect Democrats. Then, the same unions sits before these elected officials to negotiate contracts. These elected politicians then do all they can to give the union reps everything they ask for. It worked for a long time, especially in large urban cities like New York, until that city found its own books ready to collapse.

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