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Why Wisconsin Matters: A Response to Josh Barro

2011 March 10

Last night, in an obvious violation of one law and probable violation of another, the Republican lawmakers of Wisconsin voted on a one-party basis to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights. Josh Barro saw fit on this occasion to explain that this doesn’t much matter except to public workers in the Badger State, apparently convincingly enough to prompt no less scrupulous a commentator than Ezra Klein to remark that he might be right. They are both wrong.

Barro’s central point is how unusual the rights Wisconsin workers have won for themselves are nationally.

Only 26 states have laws that grant collective-bargaining privileges to substantially all [sic] public employees. Twelve have laws that give collective bargaining to some workers, and twelve have no statewide collective-bargaining law at all, though some municipalities may grant bargaining rights in those states.

He also cites justly, if a bit orthogonally, the situation for federal workers, whose collective-bargaining rights have been significantly constricted by the efforts of President Obama. Indiana and Virginia are doing just fine, Barro holds, without Wisconsin-style rights for public workers, and the fact that the left is not exorcized by circumstances in those states undermines the left’s authority as it expresses outrage over the Wisconsin situationBarro: “There is no clamor among Democrats in Virginia to give collective-bargaining privileges to public workers.”

But a key reason this Wisconsin action is meaningful is just that: it represents a back-slide in the movement to extend rights to workers. Wisconsin is a paragon of worker’s rights, Virginia a wasteland. In Virginia, it’s true, there are not major protests, but we who advocate for workers’ rights are not measuring Wisconsin against Virginia; we are measuring it against Wisconsin. A tantamount case: if America were to adopt a state church, it wouldn’t do to say “Well, Britain’s got one, and there aren’t massive protests there to combat it. America’s constitutional hostility toward religious governance is rare in the world, and the case of England shows that a state church isn’t all that bad.” No: it’s worth hanging on to treasured rights and advocating for their extension to citizens who do not enjoy them, rather than seeking to stifle objections on the grounds that other places are worse off. Wisconsin, which has always been at the vanguard of the American labor movement, is a consistent light amidst a creeping darkness. We should defy furiously the attempt to extinguish that light, however many people are living sightlessly.

(There is an additional problem with conservatives arguing this way. Reihan Salam has argued eloquently the conservative vision of a federation composed of differently governed states, rather than a unified, homogenous national arrangement. One is given pause when who but Salam himself cites the Virginia example as axiomatically applicable to the Wisconsin one.)

This is an inestimably important moment in labor history. The organized portion of the American labor force has been thoroughly eviscerated; virtually all that remains of an American labor movement are public unions. Of course, by way of strangling the last lifeblood out of workers, conservatives are now pretending that, in retrospect, they were for labor all along, just as long as the workers weren’t employed by the state. Arrant bunk, this, and they ought to be called on it. The events in Madison last night strip bare the intentions of Republicans, who claimed that the obliteration of collective bargaining rights was fiscally necessary, but, unable to pass fiscally significant measures without a quorum including Democrats, decided that, come to think of it, this was really fiscally irrelevant and could therefore be done without a single member of the minority party even present. The fact of the matter is that this hasn’t a thing to do with budgetary concerns; the right wing in this country will not stop until it has destroyed the labor movement. If Democrats let Republicans get away with it, they are undermining their own political future, and it is up to us to ensure the opposite: that the Republicans’ anti-union efforts undermine their political future instead.

Indeed, what has happened in Wisconsin is meaningful precisely because we care about it. The protests give it meaning, because they make this no longer just a matter of the strict effects of policy but rather a test of people power. Through the protests, this becomes a case in the question of whether an enormous solidarity movement that sustains itself in massive protests which last day in and day out can affect political change. The Republicans’ legislative action does not represent the will of the peoplenone of the lawmakers who engineered this maneuver campaigned on a promise to do it. The protests force us to ask: have a unified people, fervently engaged in a robust outcry, the ability to make lawmakers apprehensive about ignoring their will? If the answer is no, then American democracy is sunk.

That’s why Wisconsin matters: because if it doesn’t, we don’t.

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