To many city employees the Wisconsin meltdown must seem like some distant nightmare. Closer than the unreported labor union repression that is partially responsible for the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia. Not as scary as the nuclear meltdown currently brewing in Japan. Still, the events in Wisconsin pose a real threat in all our lives. That debacle may prove to affect the future of all working people in the United States of America. This is about our basic right to a voice at the workplace. Make no mistake; this is a power grab on the part of the corporations and moneyed interests. It is a stop on the road to complete subjugation and exploitation of the middle class. The future of working people is at stake and if the enemies of collective bargaining are successful, our country will bear more resemblance to a feudal state than a democratic republic.
The corporate media spin on these events is that it is all about money. Most states are in trouble financially, some more than others. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker came to office promising to make the difficult decisions. In one of his first actions, he immediately made the difficult decision to give away $150 million dollars to his favorite charity, corporations. He then expressed his shock at the dismal state of the Wisconsin budget. Sacrifices must be made and public employees and their “Cadillac “ salaries and benefits became an easy target. Unions in Wisconsin responded by agreeing with every financial concession suggested to help reduce the deficit. These concessions were not good enough for Walker in his quest for more power. He wanted to eliminate the right of public employees to bargain collectively and reduce Wisconsin’s public employee union’s ability to affect the workplace in any meaningful way.
If this seems like another desperate attempt made by an anti union, public employee hating manic, think again. The events in Wisconsin pave the way to eliminate one of the remaining thorns in the side of corporations and their rich friends. Public sector unions currently represent the majority of union employees in the U.S. Unlike the highly organized countries in Europe like Sweden, whose doctors are even unionized, U.S. union membership continues to fall. Outsourcing and other union busting tactics have decimated private sector unions in the U.S. The public employee unions now represent the majority of our union workers. This makes public employee unions an obvious target.
This is not just a union fight in Wisconsin. These events open the door to many possibilities for corporate profit. With the unions out of the way, Wisconsin’s public utilities, lands and pension fund is ripe for the taking. It is a win-win situation for Walker and his corporate sponsors.
Similar events are taking place in many states. In Ohio the governor wants to privatize every correctional facility and is also interested in limits to collective bargaining under the guise of “reform and streamlining”. Michigan has taken away the right for childcare workers to bargain. All in all there are currently 119 bills in 13 states to limit or eliminate collective bargaining. Wisconsin is on the leading edge in what looks like a national trend.
So what has been the response to these attacks that are really attacks on the middle class and their way of life? No one is giving up. On March 13th a Wisconsin rally drew an estimated 150,000 people demonstrating in support for public workers and their right to collective bargaining. There is also strong support from Wisconsin businesses and even the usually conservative Madison Chamber of Commerce. There have been similar protest demonstrations in all 50 states. If anyone wonders why these events have not been in the media it is probably because somewhere a dog is in a tree or a cat has bitten some tea party participant.
This brings us to our situation in the State of Oregon. We are more fortunate than Wisconsin in more ways than the weather. Our governor has declared his support for collective bargaining. In addition we currently have a senate that does not want controversy and is currently looking for workable solutions to our state’s budget problems. We also have key leaders in the Oregon House of Representatives who are not afraid to stand up for the rights of public employees.
Still there are some rather disturbing bills in the House and Senate. House Bill 2771 would repeal statutes related to mandatory workplace communication of employer’s opinions about religious and political matters. House Bill 2984 eliminates employer pick-up of the six percent employee contribution required of members of individual account program of the Public Employees Retirement System. At this time 70% of PERS members have their contribution picked up including City of Portland employees. The 6% pickup was part of a 1979 agreement in which government employers paid the 6% contribution to their employees retirement fund in exchange for a wage freeze that saved millions of dollars for Oregon public employers.
All in all there are more than 24 bills affecting the Public Employees Retirement System alone. PERS has always been a convenient target but current governor John Kitzhaber says that there is no assault on collective bargaining here like there is in Wisconsin. Most of the anti public employee bills are stalled in committee and will be ultimately judged to be unconstitutional. We at the City of Portland are in the beginning of a new contract and have some time to prepare for possible future events.
Is there any solution to the financial mess we find ourselves in, both locally and nationally? Some issues need to be addressed. We need to fix health care before it totally swamps us. We need to fix our tax system. Our unbalanced trickle down system is why there is not enough money to support the basic services on which we depend. Finally, we need to make it easier to join a union. Money is the medium on which politics depends and in this arena the rich have a distinct advantage. The only way the working people of this country can compete with the oligarchs is by banding together in unions. This way we can collectively make our voice heard. A simple march in Wisconsin has become a national fight. History has shown that it is an ongoing fight and history has also shown that it is ours to win.