The Walker Approach: Forsaking the Economy by Forsaking Workers
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed last week to suddenly erase 50 years of collective-bargaining rights for Wisconsin's public workers within a week, to be backed up by calling up the National Guard (Walker spokesmen later clarified that the Guard's role would be limited to replacing prison guards).
Walker's plan drew a crowd of 30,000 to 50,000 public workers and their supporters Wednesday at the State Capitol in Madison, united in their opposition to Republican plans to almost entirely take away their rights to union representation.
Yet Walker's hard-line stance has been applauded by Marquette Law Prof. Rick Esenberg ("Union model doesn't work for public jobs," (Journal Sentinel 2/15/11 at ) who praises Gov. Walker's attempt to deny the fundamental democratic right to form authentic unions to public workers.
Esenberg's argument regrettably reflects the Right's increasing contempt for basic pillars of democracy, human rights, and a vision of broadly shared prosperity for America.
Esenberg can conceive of union representation for workers only as a barrier to maximum cost savings for management without regard to human rights or social costs:
"In the context of public employment, elected officials are management. Taxpayers are shareholders. Imagine how the shareholders of General Electric would feel about a CEO who promised to fight for unionization of the company and higher compensation for its employees."
First, this imaginary GE CEO would merely be complying with US labor law. The CEO would be observing a universally respected international standard human rights by acknowledging workers' democratic right to unionize, a value in virtually all democracies except the US. Would law professor Esenberg instead prefer that the GE CEO defy the law and deny workers their rights?
Further, contrary to Esenberg's claims, the shrinkage of union membership in America is not a matter of worker choice, but rather the systematic denial of choice by US employers over the last several decades.
As Business Week (5/23/94) accurately reported, "US industry has conducted one of the most successful antiunion wars ever, illegally firing thousands of workers for exercising their right to organize." Moreover, the wave of "offshoring" jobs to low-wage, high-repression nations like Mexico and China has both directly caused the loss of millions of union jobs and provided management with leverage to drive down wages through the threat of relocation at remaining plants in the US.
Second, enlightened corporate leaders since Henry Ford have recognized that paying their own workers decent wages is a strategically-sound business strategy to build up the US domestic market. Family-supporting wages increase the total buying power of the working class and thus raise product sales and profits. In contrast, the cuts in pay and benefits which Gov. Walker seeks to unilaterally impose would deprive Wisconsin businesses of between $900 million and $1.2 billion in spending by public employees, according to a Institute for Wisconsin's Future study.
Instead of injecting a stimulus into Wisconsin's still-suffering economy, Walker's package of destroyed labor rights and pay cuts would seriously drain the state of economic vitality. But the Walker approach does have its advantages for favored constituencies.
Namely, the Walker approach shields Wisconsin's large corporations–about 60% of whom paid no corporate income taxes in recent years–and Wisconsin's richest 1%–who haul in about 24% of all income–from tax increases that would demonstrate their commitment to share in the vast sacrifices the recession has imposed on less-fortunate citizens of the state. Further, Walker has been expanding corporate tax breaks while proclaiming that the budget deficit is the state's chief problem.
In sharp contrast to Walker, a more visionary and humane view of how the economy can serve all citizens comes, ironically, from the late British billionaire Sir James Goldsmith:
"In the great days of the USA, Henry Ford stated that he wanted to pay high wages to his employees so that they could become his customers and buy his cars. Today we are proud of the fact that we pay low wages.
"We have forgotten that the economy is a tool to serve the needs of society, reverse. The ultimate purpose of the economy is to create prosperity … and not the reverse. The ultimate purpose of the economy is to create prosperity with stability."
Tragically, Gov. Walker and his cheerleaders like Prof. Esenberg seek to return the state and the nation to the dog-eat-dog world of 19th-century capitalism, where wealth and economic rights are the exclusive province of the super-rich and their allies and where workers' isolated voices can easily be ignored.