In their campaign to stifle the rights of public employees in Wisconsin, the would-be masters of the universe are fanning the embers of a human vice: envy.
You no longer have the nifty pension or health insurance or the decent pay or the union protection that you or your parents once enjoyed. You may have even lost your job. Yet, look at those fat-cat public employees, strutting around with their good salaries and benefits and their union rights – all made possible with your hard-earned money. That’s so unfair. They should suffer just like you do.
The upshot is that this message is being brought to the working stiffs in the private sector by the very people who helped make them suffer: our corporate overlords (think brothers Charles and David Koch among others). They helped shove those workers onto a downward economic spiral. Now these tycoons are counting on their victims to reach up and grab their public-sector brothers and sisters and pull them down that spiral, too.
Some Wisconsin workers have bought that message, as indicated by signs on display at a relatively small counter-protest at the Capitol in Madison on Feb. 19. (See photos on this page.) One sign – “IT’S MY MONEY NOT YOUR HUMAN RIGHT” – particularly reflects the anti-government message coming out of talk radio and right-wing think tanks (financed by our corporate oligarchy) over the last three decades.
We don’t tell workers at our cable TV company or our computer store they shouldn’t bargain for fair wages because that’s our money they’re dealing with. Rather, we figure that once the money leaves our hands, it’s no longer ours. What’s ours is the 200 TV channels or the 500-gigabyte computer we got in exchange.
Likewise, in exchange for the money we give government, we get valuable services. Public-sector workers lock up bad guys, plow snow on the route to work, teach first graders their numbers and letters, make sure rat feces don’t flavor our pasta dish, put out house fires before they reach our homes and maintain our favorite parks.
True, unlike in the private sector, we are not just consumers; we are also collectively the boss of public employees – which gives us the right to debate how the money ought to be spent, but also the moral duty to be a fair boss and to give just compensation for work done. Collective bargaining helps ensure we fulfill that duty.
Fortunately, the appeal to envy has had only limited success, polls suggest. Most people in Wisconsin and in America side with the effort of public employees to maintain their bargaining rights (though Wisconsin residents are evenly split on Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bill). Doubtless, labor’s readiness to concede on all economic issues has helped it in the battle of public opinion. The governor’s refusal to compromise in the face of that concession shows that his real goal is to castrate the unions.
A big reason America’s middle class has receded is that labor unions have eroded in the private sector. One possible response of workers there is to resent their compatriots in the public sector, where labor strength has grown over the last several decades. But most workers have not succumbed to that temptation. Rather, they astutely recognize that the middle class is less likely to rebound if public-sector labor unions lose their strength, too.