Although he seems rather defiant, one has to wonder if Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who has been in office less than two months, might be a little green behind the ears. His battle with the public sector unions (which governors of states far more liberal than Wisconsin are waging much more successfully), has turned the public against him, and a majority say they would elect his opponent if they could re-cast their vote. But plenty of other governors have taken on public sector unions without generating as enormous a backlash as has Walker. I suspect that the real problem is that, more than going toe-to-toe with a powerful constituency, Walker has threatened a social contract that is at the crux of our modern socio-political edifice.
A few clarifying notes are in order:
1. The situation in Wisconsin is not primarily, or perhaps at this point, not at all about budget deficits. As has been widely acknowledged, the unions Gov. Scott Walker has targeted (by mere coincidence, those that didn’t support his election campaign), had already accepted pay and benefit cuts, so that battle was essentially already won. What has prompted the confrontation is Walker’s plan to gut collective bargaining rights..
2. Some have pointed out that Walker’s plan does preserve some of the unions’ bargaining power. This is technically true; however, unions are only allowed to negotiate pay raises that are less than or equal to the previous year’s inflation WHICH MEANS that at best, worker’s salaries can keep pace with inflation WHICH MEANS that in anything other than the best-case scenario, their wages will decline in real terms. Moreover, unions are only allowed to negotiate pay increases; they cannot push for better working conditions. If you think state employees couldn’t possibly work in dangerous or undesirable conditions, let me just provide one anecdote: my aunt worked for the Wisconsin DNR as a botanist, and in that capacity, had to row out in a rowboat by herself and collect plant samples from marshes and swamps. It’s not hard to imagine how providing poor equipment or insufficient safety measures might make this job dangerous. Even if it’s not an issue of safety, there are plenty of situations where unions might rightly demand better working conditions– if, for example, they are asked to do more work using outdated and inefficient computers or other technology, collective bargaining could help obtain better resources.
3. I’m not necessarily a union apologist; in fact, I think there are plenty of instance of union excess. The following is not a defense of the pay level of union workers, or of the specific benefits they enjoy. It’s just an explanation of the importance of unions in our late capitalist system.
Trade Unions are, in essence, a mechanism for dealing with power assymetries. In the relationship between employer and employee, the power typically resides with the employer for several reasons. First the employer pays the employees wages and thus has significant financial leverage over the employee. Second, the employer owns the capital which makes production possible, and therefore the employee is unproductive apart from the employer. Finally, the employer has institutional resources that individual employees might lack, such as legal counsel to pursue litigation. Unions correct this imbalance by allowing the workers to pool their respective individual power into a collective effort. But Unions are not just the counter-balance to potential employee over-reach, as I shall now argue…
One of the giddy maxims of American apologetics is that “In America, everyone can grow up to be anything they dream of.” This is, of course, lunacy. Just as companies that only have senior executives on staff can’t produce anything, the economy as a whole can’t afford to have too many visionaries or too much upward mobility. Although innovation is indeed driven by the hard-working and intelligent, the survival of the system itself is WHOLLY DEPENDENT on most workers not advancing within it. Fittingly, the original unions arose during the Industrial Revolution, when manufacturers needed a large supply of low-skilled labourers, the vast majority of whom would never advance beyond machine operator or machine cleaner, etc.
When it comes to the provision of public goods (like education or law enforcement), the tension between what individuals want (opportunities for advancement in their careers) and what society needs is exacerbated. Put another way, schools need teachers, and lots of them, and no more than a few teachers can advance beyond actually teaching students. So the social contract with teachers (really just a variant of the larger one at the crux of the system) stipulates that in return for not having much prospect for advancement, they will still make a good salary, regardless of their seniority or rank. Moreover, because pay increases as a result of promotion up the corporate ladder are removed, they have the right to bargain for pay increases based on other factors.
That in a nutshell is the fragile agreement in which labour rights are enmeshed: Non-linear advancement and potentially unfulfilling work in exchange for above-average pay and non-wage benefits. Because the pay of public sector unions does not respond to market signals, some times abrupt corrections have to be made — usually downward but occasionally upward. Gov. Walker has done more than just propose this wage correction; he has threatened the social contract itself. Several polls have shown that public opinion is on the side of the unions in their confrontation with Gov. Walker, even among respondents who aren’t otherwise in favour of unions. To me, this suggests that the social contract is still much more sacred than Gov. Walker realised.