Massacre in Wisconsin: The Assault on Workers’ Rights

Here is a thought.  Three individuals are seated at a table.  One is a corporate CEO; one is a middle-class conservative and Tea Party activist; and the third is a worker and union member.  In the center of the table is a plate with twelve cookies on it.  The CEO takes eleven of the cookies, gets up to leave, then turns to the Tea Party activist and says, “Watch out for that union guy.  He wants a piece of your cookie.”

 It’s a joke.  Or is it?  In order to see the humor in it, you would have to be able to understand the reality behind it.  And if you understand what the “joke” is referring to, then you are likely to smile, nod your head in the affirmative, and say, “How true it is.”

I think the reason this little story is making the rounds on the internet is because of the recent bloody massacre in Madison, Wisconsin.  Workers’ rights, indeed, basic human rights gained by decades of struggle for justice in the workplace were swept away by a small group of Social Darwinist legislators.  

In recent days, I have had several discussions concerning whether or not workers should have the right to organize workers’ unions to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. What really amazes me is how few people understand what is, or should I say was, at stake in Wisconsin.  But then I live in Mississippi, the state with the lowest wages in the nation and where only ten-percent of high school graduates are deemed qualified for college-level work. 

Some years ago, l lived in West Virginia, a state that has more than a little in common with Mississippi.  Natural beauty and the extreme poverty of the masses are characteristic of both states.  In both states a small number of wealthy citizens enjoy the good life at the expense of the laboring poor. 

I am often reminded of what a barber in Morgantown, West Virginia, said to me with great pride.  “We are always a day late and a dollar short,” he said, “poor but proud.”  As I sat there in the chair with him clipping the hair around my ears and shaving my neck with a straight razor, I said nothing.  But in my mind I wondered—why would anyone take pride in poverty and ignorance? 

The fact is that Americans have long been taught to see some sort of virtue in poverty and ignorance.  Is it part of a gigantic conspiracy on the part of the rich to keep the masses poor and ignorant, in order to guarantee a cheap labor force when needed?  I don’t think so.

Perhaps the existence of poor and rich is the result of basic economic laws.  That is an idea that Adam Smith would agree with.  Perhaps, as the Social Darwinists allege, the disparity results from the ever present struggle for survival of the fittest that characterizes all of life.  Progress is the result of a bloody struggle by which some, the strong, climb to the top of the heap over the bodies of the weak.  Since the only law is the law of the jungle, justice is what is, and mercy is a sign of weakness.

The classic liberals, called conservatives today, held that the only legitimate function of government was to act as a sort of referee over competition—economic, political, or whatever—between autonomous individuals.  The winners enjoy the fruits of their success, and the losers suffer the consequences of their failure.  Justice is getting what one deserves, another version of the law of the jungle.  As for mercy, think of Oliver Twist and the workhouse.

The fact is that the exploitation of the many by the few has been a constant in human society since the dawn of history.  Some would ascribe the very existence of civilization to that reality.  I’m not sure that I can agree with that.  But then, maybe my understanding of what it means to be civilized is different.

 So, what has all of this to do with the recent events in Madison, Wisconsin? 

One of the unfortunate byproducts of the Industrial Revolution was what historians call “the evils of industrialization.”  Among them was the assumption that labor was only another of the various costs that went into the production of widgets.  That led to the crass exploitation of the working people by those who owned and controlled the means of producing wealth.  Under industrialization that meant capital, natural resources, etc.

The classical liberals believed that each individual must be free to enter into a contract.  For example, the worker must be free to enter into a contract with an employer to sell his/her labor for an agreed upon price.  That of course was an illusion.  How could the individual worker bargain with the factory owner for wages on any sort of equal footing?  My maternal grandfather went to work in a lumber camp at age five.  How far do you think he would have gotten, if he were to ask for a fair wage or any so-called “benefits?”

The working classes of America struggled for many years to achieve the right to a decent lifestyle.  Only through the right to collective bargaining, and the right to have a union shop, can workers achieve justice. 

The assault upon workers’ rights by the governor of Wisconsin and his supporters is an attempt to return America to the Gilded Age of the robber barons, only this time with steroids.  It is an attempt to return to Social Darwinism in labor-management relations. 

Historian Norman F. Cantor has said that the golden age of the American working class was the period from the end of World War II until the mid-1980s (The American Century, 1997).  That golden age was the result of the union movement, not the generosity of the robber barons. 

It is true that a decent standard of living did not extend to all workers.  For example, in the old South where so-called “right to work” laws made unionization difficult or impossible, workers suffered under entrenched exploitation.  Those who controlled the wealth kept the working classes poor and ignorant by retarding the growth of public education and playing whites against African-Americans. The white worker who grumbled at his subsistence wages was reminded that he could always be replaced with a black worker.  Thus he was persuaded to accept his station in life, and sooth his wounds with the illusion that at least he was better than his African-American brother.

There should not be any rejoicing about the momentary victory of Governor Scott Walker and his allies over workers’ rights.  Instead, the sound of weeping and anger should be heard throughout the land.

 A battle has been lost, but not the war.  In the end justice will prevail.

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4 responses to “Massacre in Wisconsin: The Assault on Workers’ Rights

  1. Paul: I could not agree with you more. A great article and metaphor. Judy

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  2. I agree that the right to organize and bargain is a right that we do not want to abrogate. I am not so sure about the right of public employees to organize. With whom are they supposed to bargain? In this collective bargaining scenario the public employees union representatives are bargaining against a government representative. The government does not have a profit position to protect. Although, i admit that straigtened government budgets could straightened the government negotiator’s backbone.

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  3. You said: “Perhaps the existence of poor and rich is the result of basic economic laws. That is an idea that Adam Smith would agree with. Perhaps, as the Social Darwinists allege, the disparity results from the ever present struggle for survival of the fittest that characterizes all of life” I am wondering how that fits in with those who have taken a vow of poverty such as the Franciscans? They choose to be poor and are truly happy about their choice. They do not care for material possesions. They do not believe that financial gain equals success. I am also wondering why socialism does not work. It seems like the ideal system. Everyone could share ownership and the wealth could be distributed equally. What is wrong with socialism? Why don’t we practice socialism today in our country?

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    • Thanks. These are very good comments.
      I think both Adam Smith and the Social Darwinists would say that the existence of poverty is a byproduct of the natural laws of society. Those laws, they would say, are beyond our control. If we try to mess with them by, e. g., helping those who suffer as a result of “free” competition, we will only increase the suffering. I disagree.
      A command economy like socialism (Marxism, etc.) does not work. I think the history of the 20th century clearly shows that only a free economy works, or at least works best. Socialism is based on the assumption that people are by nature good, only corrupted by their environment (i. e., history, culture, education, etc.). But human beings are not by nature good. Neither are they by nature bad. Human nature, like all of creation, is corrupted by the Fall. Thus anyone who puts their hope in an ism based on the natural goodness of human nature will be disillusioned by reality.
      A free economy works, I think, because it assumes that human beings are selfish, greedy, etc. I think it is obvious that apart from God’s intervention, the only thing that can change human nature one person at a time, fallen human beings are indeed selfish, greedy, etc. That does not mean that they cannot do good deeds. Even “born again” Christians and very good non-Christians exhibit both good and bad behavior.
      The fact that free enterprise works is not the same as saying that it is morally right, however. Uncontrolled capitalism will result in as great injustice as socialism. What is needed is a middle road, i.e., capitalism with “a heart,” or socialism with a “human face.” What is referred to as a “social market economy,” the policies that resulted in the recovery and prosperity of West Germany after World War II, is an example of such a middle road between uncontrolled capitalism and socialism.
      A social market economy assumes free enterprise, but with controls. Competition is controlled with the goal of avoiding, or limiting, extreme swings in the economy. When government and private enterprise work together, “fair competition” can replace the cutthroat competition that characterizes unrestrained capitalism. Fair competition in turn makes possible high wages and a comprehensive welfare program. Peace replaces conflict between management and labor, and everyone shares in the prosperity.
      By the 1960s, a social market economy was the standard model in Western Europe, and was supported by both left of center and right of center governments. Would it work in the USA? I am not sure. Our culture is different. The working classes in America have been taught to be content with being “a day late, a dollar short, poor but proud,” all in the name of so-called “individual freedom.”
      There are individuals who choose to opt out of the consumer mentality by embracing poverty in a religious order such as the Franciscans, or simply choosing to live a simple lifestyle. They serve as an inspiration for the rest of us, and help to keep people like me from becoming totally pessimistic. But, they are able to do so because they live a kind of “protected life” within a free society. If we were all to choose such a lifestyle, I think the result would be anarchy. Fallen humanity needs limits on individual freedom. Where and how to set those limits, and how to enforce them, is the real challenge. I think the “gas and water socialism” of postwar Europe is a good example. But then there is the monumental problem posed by today’s global economy.
      Life sure is complicated. That’s why we need help.

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