April 17, 2011

Letter to the Editor: Mythmaking about Wisconsin

Print More

To the Editor:

Re: “Letter to the Editor: Unions and taxes — more is less,” Opinion, April 12

Even two months after the budget repair bill was introduced in Wisconsin, misconceptions continue to permeate the debate surrounding cuts to collective bargaining rights and benefits for public unions. Just last week a column appeared in The Sun decrying the prohibitive costs of public unions for taxpayers and complementing Governor Scott Walker for taking a stand against them. Articles like these that overstate the harms of public unions while ignoring the actual provisions of Walker’s bill only strengthen a corporatist, anti-labor agenda that is weakening the foundations of our democracy.

The most important misconception about Walker’s bill is that it was designed solely to help Wisconsin’s struggling economy. While the bill restricts collective bargaining rights to only issues of wages for almost all public unions, it exempts police and firefighters. These are two of the most heavily unionized professions in Wisconsin and a bill designed to reduce the economic impact of public unions would logically include these. However, unions for police and firefighters supported Walker in his election, apparently absolving them of any economic harm they might do to state deficits. The fact that unions offered to accept the benefits cuts Walker proposed as long as collective bargaining rights were retained, only to have Walker refuse, is even more telling. Collective bargaining rights do not impose any cost on their own. The contradictions between Walker’s bill and the economic justifications he employs show him for the hypocrite he is, willingly sacrificing the rights of public workers to secure his own political power.

The idea that, because taxpayer money is used, public unions should not receive benefits or be able to participate in politics utilizes the same spurious logic. With public employees, the employer is the state and the “customers” are taxpayers. The state spends taxpayer money to secure talented workers who provide public services required by the public. Benefits take on the incentive functions of wages in attracting workers. If unionized public sector workers were receiving especially exorbitant benefits there would be a problem — however, after adjusting for education (public sector workers are almost twice as likely to have a college degree as private sector workers) and other control factors, the Economic Policy Institute found that public workers actually receive five to seven percent less in total compensation (which includes benefits) than private sector workers. Not only are public workers undercompensated, but only about 33 percent of them are even unionized. The myth of the monopolistic public union, restricting competition and leeching money from state taxpayers to finance the bloated salaries and expensive vacations of lazy workers, quickly falls apart. Public workers are not parasites on society, but underpaid and underappreciated people made scapegoats for the economic woes of an entire state. Wisconsin’s unions value collective bargaining rights not as a lever by which they attain unfair benefits over the rest of society, but as one of the few means for giving the workers they represent a say in their workplace.

In today’s society, unions remain one of the few organizations capable of representing the needs of the lower and middle class both in the workplace and politics.  In a nation where corporations are enabled to donate hundreds of millions of dollars every year to political elections, where professors at Duke, Cornell, and Princeton have found that there is no relationship between the interests of the middle and lower classes and policy outcomes, and where only the top five percent of society have any hope of getting elected to the highest positions of power, economic wealth has become a pre-requisite to having a voice in our democracy. Unions are neither perfect nor powerful, but they remain one of the only means for the overwhelming majority of Americans to access their democratic and economic rights in American society and supporting their growth should be one of the primary goals of progressive forces in the years to come. Governor Walker’s attempt to suppress these organizations should not be celebrated, but condemned.

Dan Powers ’14

Member of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action