As I watch the protests from Madison (and get updates from our very own on–the–ground correspondent), I am amazed at the resolution and determination of the protestors. In no small part because watching what is happening in Madison affects good friends dearly and gives the rest of us pause to think about what kind of country we want to live in.
With deference to President Obama, this isn’t an “assault on unions;” this is an assault on the fundamental idea of equality in our country.
Unions are the medium through which equality is accomplished, not the end in themselves. I don’t support unions because they are unions; I support unions because they are one of the few institutions in this country that create a playing field that is anything close to level. This protest hits particularly close to home for me. I include among my friends members, leaders, and staff at TAA, as well as their sister union from UW-Milwaukee the MGAA. There are not two more capable and energetic locals.
Lost in almost every discussion of unions is the effort that they make to ensure equality and fairness. As an officer in my own graduate student union (the ‘3550’ in my name comes from the local number), we certainly fought over wages and benefits. We staged a walk-out that looks like a picnic compared to what the TAA and MGAA are doing now and won in a rough economic climate. The salary that we made (among the best in the country in large part, I believe, on the strength of our organizing) made sure that my wife and I got through graduate school without debt. It allowed first-generation college grads to get graduate degrees and still make enough to support their families.
Wages and benefits, however, paled in comparison to the basic equality that our union fought for. In the short time I was involved, we won transgender equality that became a model for the university and a national model for other employers; made sure that a graduate student instructor (what we call TAs) did not lose her job — and pay — when she was held up over winter break because Homeland Security confused her with a convicted felon due to her common, non-Anglo name; won back pay for a member who was unfairly passed up in the hiring; and devised a strategy for making sure that benefits for domestic partners would not be cut off after the homophobic marriage amendment craze swept through our state (though the University will claim it as their own, the current policy was based on language we took to the table two years earlier). The union made these accomplishments of basic equality possible.
The Republicans’ claim that public sector workers must be brought in line with private sector employees reverses the equation. Private sector workers didn’t share in the riches of the good times. Their corporate overlords, on the other hand, made off magnificently in the good times and then, when things turned sour, compensated their workers who created their record profits with pink slips.
They didn’t share because Republicans and their corporate donors (helped by some prominent Democrats) undermined every labor law in this country. They destroyed unions using unethical tactics at best and illegal ones at worst. They made it virtually impossible to help workers gain a voice in their workplaces, even as their working conditions killed them. They claim that Democrats pander to a “special interest,” which might otherwise be called “their constituents” — after all a union is the workers — while undermining the very ability of the private sector employees to maintain their real wages and fight the capricious managers that got us into this financial disaster.
So, to all of you in Wisconsin: thank you for keeping up the good fight. To those who stand in solidarity elsewhere, I urge you to donate. And to all of us who care about equality, let this be the beginning of the fight to make sure that we restore a basic sense of fairness by demanding fair labor laws in this country.