It seems to be the season of protest. Not merely are people in their tens of thousands marching in the Middle East and Africa, where blood is being spilt, but trouble is brewing in freedom land. Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker’s bill designed to end collective bargaining for public workers has shown a certain incendiary potential. In Madison, protesters number 25 thousand took to the streets, taking camp outside the Capitol building.
Wisconsin has become something of a test case in a new assault on collective bargaining. The bill proposes to make state workers pay half their pension costs and at least 12.6 percent of their health coverage. Neither will be matters of negotiation. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has also shown much enthusiasm in eliminating that state’s collective bargaining structure as a means of balancing that state’s books. Collective bargaining has been in operation in Ohio for 27 years.
In what is becoming a rapidly ungovernable country, the instrument of collective bargaining is seen as a convenient scapegoat for bloated deficits and mishandled state finances. Employee bargaining power is seen as the fundamental obstacle, and moves are underway in Indiana, Tennessee, and New Hampshire to target the rights of workers. Nothing on this scale has been proposed since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the commencement of Right to Work laws in the 1950s.
In Wisconsin, classes have been cancelled. Schools have closed across the state. The Democrats have left the Capitol in a dramatic exit to shelter in a hotel in neighbouring Illinois, a move that is designed to sabotage prospects of a quorum. A presence within the boundaries of the state would make it a necessity for them to vote. The governor, furious, has threatened to restore order with the National Guard.
The days are a far cry from the time when collective bargaining took root in the United States. The 1880s saw strides made by the efforts of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor. What was striking about Gompers’s action was that it was never designed to discourage capitalist processes. In truth, his moves were designed to encourage the system of capital to work more smoothly within a broader franchise of participatory democracy. The institution itself has been in place in some form or rather since the creation of the American republic.
The good points of collective bargaining have been ignored as a result. That form of work relations tends to be the most cost-effective method of reaching labour agreements. But what is far more sinister is that these recent moves are designed to destroy the democratic franchise. Democracy becomes a fatuous, empty word if it doesn’t have a representative quality to it. For James Gregory of the University of Washington, ‘This is a threat not just to unions but to American democratic institutions’ (Guardian, Feb 18). The unions know that, and so do the Republican accountants.