Sunday, July 1, 2012

What the message should be - public unionism protects the people from the uncaring hacks

I saw a few articles in recent days that illustrated the problem some individuals have with unionized, public employees, and also why we need public sector unions more than ever.

The first is an excellent rundown of the resentment small-town and small-wage Wisconsin has against public sector employees. The reflections from UW professor Katherine Cramer Walsh show how low-income private sector workers could resent people in their own community, but not resent the CEOs and other pro-corporate slime that caused their dire situation.
But Walsh, a lifelong Wisconsin resident whose parents were public school teachers, says she first ran up against the public/private divide when visiting a community in northwestern Wisconsin during the spring of 2008.

She says that a group of loggers, most of whom were self-employed, believed that while schoolteachers may work hard during the year, they have cushy positions. Among the perks: great benefits, health care, summers off and an annual salary of about $50,000 a year. "Nobody in this town makes anywhere near $50,000," says Walsh, paraphrasing comments she heard. "At the lumber mill, they're making $20,000 and losing their fingers!"

Walsh says when she probes further, asking why people see a public employee/private employee divide and not a rich/poor divide, she gets stares of disbelief.

It seems to come down to what is tangible and what can be controlled. Private-sector workers, many of whom are struggling, perceive that a large portion of their taxes are going to pay for the salaries of public workers. A cut to public-employee wages and benefits would, at least in theory, mean lower taxes.

But these same people don't see themselves as having any control over the salaries and benefit packages of CEOs in the private sector, says Walsh. Moreover, they don't really see anything wrong with top executives making big bucks.

"There's very little blame on the private market," says Walsh. "It always comes back to government."
This goes a long way to explaining why these people could be manipulated into voting for a pro-corporate agenda like Scott Walker's that would further diminish their living standards and on-job protections even further- they don't see the damage that deregulation and corporate greed causes on an everyday basis, but they do see the comfortable standard of living teachers and other public employees get in their community. They're also reminded on hate radio about how much better these people allegedly have it, and their resentment of getting screwed in life gets focused on the public employees that have the wages and benefits they want instead of turning their anger on the people who caused their situation.

Another Isthmus article from Marc Eisen has a good solution to this problem of framing- showing how public unionism keeps government from being run by patronage-installed hacks who don't care about the public that pays their salary.
[Albert] Schmedeman came into office in 1932 as the first Democratic governor in 38 years. He was hell-bent on firing state employees and hiring his friends. Fearful of the Democrats' plan to destroy civil service, the nascent state employees association began organizing. Their objectives included a forthright pledge "to extend and uphold the principle of merit and fitness in public employment." There was also the promise to advance the welfare of state employees.

But organizers took it a step further. They also pledged "to promote efficiency in public services" and to reduce to a minimum "overlapping and duplication of services." In other words, they focused not just on their own needs, but also on looking out for the taxpayers. They were outlining a mission — a cause — that reached beyond their own enrichment

This is precisely what a newly focused public employee unionism needs today to regain relevance. The hard truth is that the old industrial- union model doesn't cut it anymore. Public employees aren't working on a factory floor. The old focus on minutely defined job descriptions, lockstep pay levels and prizing longevity over merit has to give way to a sense of mission and professionalism.

....[Kimberlee] Wright joined the state to run the DNR's Stewardship Program, which purchases valuable natural areas. Her contact with her union left her unimpressed. "I paid about $50 per month [in dues] and personally resent not being better represented."

This came crashing home for her when she alleges she was pressured by Gov. Jim Doyle's office to divvy up the stewardship money in a certain way, and she pushed back.....

Wright's little union, she says, was run by "slick insiders who fed us bullshit to further their own interests." She adds, "I couldn't get the time of day from [the leadership]." Wright, who describes herself as pro-labor, says, "You have to invent the idea of a union all over again."

She's right. Civically minded unions are needed as a counterweight.
This is where people such as AFSCME's Marty Beil and WEAC's Mary Bell have failed in the last 18 months. Instead of turning the debate on public employees into an illlustration of why we need an independent public sector that values competence over ass-kissing and politics, they decided to concentrate on the issue of money and gaining power through politics. And sure, it's hard to get anything done in government without having politicians on your side, but Marty and Mary tried to do this through the insider game (remember their idiotic support of Kathleen Falk early on?) instead of continuing to educate the voters ON THE ISSUES.

And when Marty and Mary take their union brothers and sisters as well as the average voter out of the equation, then it shouldn't come as a surprise that the average voter turns off and is more likely to be suckered into "getting even" with public employees by voting for people like Scott Walker.

Lastly, look at the stories that have come out in the last few days regarding new school-board imposed handbooks for teachers in Madison-area districts, to the mass desertions in New Berlin the year after the new handbook took effect. What Act 10 and the daily rantings from hate radio have done is to devalue public service and is encouraging well-qualified individuals from staying in (or considering) public sector jobs.

This devaluing of public service was something Tom Barrett effectively pointed out in his stump speeches, but the DPW and the unions failed to drive this point home during the recall campaign, leaving the Fitzwalkerstanis to be the ones allowed to define the issue, and portray teachers, road workers, fire fighters, and police officers as "takers" instead of the people who stabilize our communities and improve the quality of life for all of us.

And it plays right into the hands of GOP puppet-masters, who want public service to be just another extension of the elected hacks in the Legislature and the Governor's Office, and not to have accountability to anyone but the corrupt bosses who call the shots. I've hit on this before, with the Walker Administration's hiring of the Brian Deschanes, Val Casses and Tim Russells of the world, and Eisen's article accurately points out how independent whistle-blowers at the DNR stopped high-level Walker appointees and corrupt legislators from the 262 area code putting hundreds of homes near Oconomowoc from being at further risk due to negligence from GOP donators at Herr Environmental.
Notably, there was a go-easy policy for a Republican-connected waste hauler accused of serious environmental lapses. Forget the polite euphemisms — the hauler is accused of spreading human shit too thickly on farm fields in Jefferson County.

"One of the neighbors couldn't hang her laundry out to dry, the smell was so bad," says Kimberlee Wright, head of Midwest Environmental Advocates. "This guy was spreading human waste right up to people's property lines."

Channeling his inner Chicago alderman, Republican State Rep. Joel Kleefisch chose to sit in on enforcement meetings between the hauler and DNR staff. He argued for kid-glove treatment of the shit spreader. Can you imagine how intimidated state regulators felt?

But as Seely reported, a number of dedicated midlevel DNR employees still spoke out on how political considerations seemed to be undermining enforcement decisions.
And THIS type of action is what we should be emphasizing, that public employees are the last check the people have on the corruption and hackery that is endemic to today's political system. Public employees must have the freedom to say "NO" without fear of retribution when they see policies and laws being broken, or when they feel the public is being endangered by politicians and corporations who do not care about the consequences of their actions. This line of reasoning needs to be driven hard for the next 4 months, because the public is aware that government is letting them down, but they often don't think about why this is so, and they choose to take out their frustration on "faceless bureaucrats" and their local teachers instead of the people who are really screwing things up.

So the bottom line I see here is that public unionism is needed more than ever in an age of Citizens United and corporate-politician alliances. And we need to speak up and present this truth now, or else the public's last line of defense from the public sector will be obliterated, and we'll all be badly hurt if that occurs.

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