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March 5, 2011

Public workers' battle: A zero-sum game?


by Laura McClure

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Some interesting things have been happening in Madison, Wisc., lately. And I'm not just talking about the case of the disappearing legislators -- the 14 Wisconsin state senators who went AWOL rather than vote on legislation that would rob Wisconsin public workers of bargaining rights.

Gov. Scott Walker calls the legislation a "budget repair bill," but the unions representing workers have already agreed to accept the bill's wage and benefit cuts -- including doubling the amount they have to pay for health insurance. The fight is now over workers' fundamental right to negotiate with their employer over basic benefits and working conditions -- a battle that public workers in Indiana, Ohio and several other states are now fighting as well.

Madison's beautiful state Capitol rotunda has been mobbed, inside and out, with tens of thousands of workers and their allies protesting day after day.

And then there's this major Madison news development: Ian's Pizza on State Street has stopped charging for pizza. The pizza joint has gotten so many contributions from people wanting to feed the protesting workers that it has given up on the whole selling thing altogether. "Your money's no good here, buddy," the guy behind the counter told a student who tried to pay. The donations have come from all 50 states and 14 countries, including Egypt.

Among those sacking out in the rotunda during the weeks-long slumber party are firefighters, whose bargaining rights are not affected by Gov. Walker's bill. Some of them crossed the street from Madison's Fire Station No. 1 to the Capitol, carrying "blankets, pillows and plenty of snacks to spend the night with fellow protesters on the hard marble floor of Wisconsin's Capitol," reported journalism student Talya Minsberg on the Huffington Post. The firefighters -- and police, also not covered by the legislation -- have been leading marches around the Capitol building, bagpipes blaring, eliciting cheers from the crowd wherever they go. "We are firefighters -- we respond to emergencies. And we are responding to an emergency of the middle class," firefighters union President Mahlon Mitchell said.

A recent poll of Wisconsin's citizens found that 67 percent support the goals of public service employees -- and a New York Times-CBS News poll found that nationally 60 percent of Americans oppose eliminating public workers' bargaining rights.

But some Wisconsinites feel that public workers have to "share in the sacrifice" that their own families have had to make, A.G. Sulzberger and Monica Davey reported in the New York Times. MaryKay Horter, an occupational therapist in the small town of Palmyra, told the reporters that her husband's Chevy dealership was almost forced to close after GM declared bankruptcy. Her family's income has dropped by a third.

"I don't get to bargain in my job, either," Horter said.

Who wouldn't feel sympathy for Horter -- and all Americans who've seen our wages and benefits, even our jobs, sliced in the past couple of years? But there's a flaw in Horter's reasoning. If she can't bargain for her wages and benefits, does that mean no one should? Is a public school teacher's loss her gain? Is this a zero sum game?

Horter should be able to bargain in her job. Maybe then her family's income would go up -- and they'd spend those dollars in their community, and everyone would win. Public workers and all workers should have the right to bargain for their wages, benefits and working conditions -- and if they had that right, maybe American wage standards would finally start going up, instead of staying flat or falling, as they have since the 1970s. Those Wisconsin workers are fighting to hold up wage and benefit standards for all of us.

For the past few decades American workers have been in a race to the bottom, competing with each other to see who can offer employers a lower wage. And lately that race has been hurried along by politicians like Gov. Walker, New Jersey's Chris Christie, and even our own Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who have argued that public-sector workers' salaries and benefits are bloated. In fact, politicians and pundits have been on a rampage against public workers for months, trying to convince us that the teachers and police officers and highway crews who help us get through the day are actually the source of all our economic problems.

In truth, public workers make less on average than private-sector workers, if you take education levels into account -- 11 percent less, according to a 2010 study commissioned by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. But even if they were paid better, they shouldn't be the scapegoat for our economic woes. Have we already forgotten how our economy got into this state? The economy crashed in 2008 because of Wall Street shenanigans, not because teachers got a raise (which they mostly didn't). Afterwards billions and billions of taxpayers' dollars went to prop up the very folks who caused the crash. And now, believe it or not, the big financial institutions are up to their old tricks and old bonuses -- all thanks to taxpayer largesse.

Instead of forcing public workers to accept pay cuts, we should step back and look at the shocking inequity of our entire income and tax structure. The top 1 percent of Americans (including many Wall Streeters) now take in 21 percent of the nation's income. One Wall Street hedge fund manager actually netted $5 billion in 2010. That amounts to $2.4 million an hour. It's almost enough to make you want to go back to the Nixon administration, when the ultra-rich were taxed at over 70 percent (it was over 90 percent during the term of another Republican president, Eisenhower). Hedge fund managers can pay as little as 15 percent because they can claim their income as "capital gains." But back to Wisconsin, where workers have already agreed to wage and benefit cuts. It's not a zero-sum game. Their win is our win -- as the firefighters know. The odds are probably against the workers. Or maybe not. As Kenosha firefighter David Sass pointed out, "Scott Walker has never dealt with the determination of firefighters."

Laura McClure is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Delaware County.