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Posted at 06:34 PM ET, 02/17/2011

Scrooge-ism in Wisconsin's union battle

In a blog post earlier today, Chuck Lane takes issue with my dire assessment of Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to deny collective bargaining rights to the state's public employees. Lane links this denial of bargaining rights to the state's need to cut costs, though the woods are full of governors just now who are cutting costs without taking the extraneous step of stripping from workers their right to bargain over their conditions of work. He questions whether Walker's comments about calling out the National Guard in the event that protesting workers disrupt state services signaled a harking back to the good old days of the 19th century, when governors routinely called out the Guard to break strikes and the occasional striker's head as well. In fact, Walker's remarks were widely interpreted to mean just that, so much so that his spokesman, Cullen Werwie, felt compelled to subsequently clarify them, writing that "the Guard would be used just to continue those services" that were disrupted. The problem here wasn't my reading of Walker's fast-and-loose rhetoric, it was the rhetoric itself.

Lane is particularly enamored of the governor's proposal to require all public sector unions to have an annual vote of their members on whether they want union representation at all. Annual? If we're moving to annual referendums as a matter of course, why not compel Wisconsin's elected officials to have one-year terms? Why require just one and only one kind of institution to have to run for re-election, as it were, continually? The answer, it's clear, is that Lane's real objection is to the existence of public employee unions altogether.

Public employees, he asserts, "do not have a fundamental right, either moral or legal, to bargain collectively -- for the very good reason that they work, ostensibly at least, for the people, not for profit-making private corporations." Because it's up to the individual states to grant or deny those rights to their public employees, he notes that some states that deny those rights are not the "economically stagnant, plutocratic utopias" (my wording) that I fear will result from "the union-free nightmare" (Lane's words) I conjure up.

In choosing the words "economically stagnant, plutocratic utopia," however, I was referring not to any one state in particular but the United States as a whole -- a nation that for all intents and purposes is already union-free in the private sector, where the rate of unionization is now 6.9 percent. My point was that if membership in public-sector unions falls to the rates in the private sector, as Walker, Lane and a host of conservatives plainly desire, we should expect to see the consequences of the effective elimination of collective bargaining become even more profound. Those consequences become clearer with each passing day, as corporate profits continue to rise while productive domestic investment and wages either flat-line or decline.

What's not clear is whether Lane believes that private-sector workers have a right to bargain collectively, either. The one remedy that would have effectively restored that right by enabling workers to join unions again without fear of firing -- the Employee Free Choice Act, which failed to pass in the last Congress -- was one that Lane rejected. For that matter, he's expressed doubts about the wisdom of minimum-wage legislation. Lane may not only be unconcerned over wage stagnation at a time of soaring profits, but if you lump all his positions together, he actually seems to favor it, or at minimum to advocate policies that ensure it -- Ebenezer Scrooge-ism for the 21st century.

By  |  06:34 PM ET, 02/17/2011

 
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