A new and dangerous paradigm in American politics was reached yesterday when Wisconsin Senate Republicans used parliamentary procedure to pass a bill which would strip almost all aspects of collective bargaining rights from public workers (teachers, government employees, police and firemen, etc.). This action should be a wake-up call for Americans, but it took place while the top 13 American Idol contestants were murdering songs we thought we knew and loved, so this political stroke will go almost completely unnoticed and with little challenge. This is appalling because this act, while scary in many ways, has potential to change how legislation is passed and have massive negative long-term fallout if the language in the bill becomes law.

Those that have been following the goings on in Wisconsin have been missing half the story. The news media have been doing their best to get their “message” out, which is incomplete and bereft of the detail required to educate the public in general. At best, the news media have provided enough details to polarized the debate over what is going on. At worst, they have been muzzled by their corporate masters and have not been able to give the general public the information they need to challenge this draconian legislation or educate them as to how this is bad for our country.

On the surface the Wisconsin Republicans will have you believe this is about balancing the budget. They have been very good at sticking to their talking points about the state employees being the primary cause of the budget shortfall. These same talking points have focused on the collective bargaining rights of public employees as the primary cause of all the state problems. The Republicans argue that many of the benefits (pension and health care insurance plans) created through past collective bargaining agreements have caused this budget crisis. These Republicans argue that if you eliminate collective bargaining rights that you eliminate the root cause of the budget crisis. It’s a great story but is completely fabricated and based on nothing but nonsense.

So what makes these goings on so draconian? What makes them dangerous? Several issues immediately come to mind.

First, this highly unpopular bill was rammed through the state government machine with surprising efficiency. Using a very questionable parliamentary procedure this extremely restrictive bill was pushed through to the Governor’s liking. This bill is a massive clawing back of rights earned through decades of negotiation and mutually beneficial give-and-take. This is an ideologically driven politician saying that this history means nothing and his perspective, or that of his extremely wealthy corporate benefactors, means more than agreements negotiated in good faith. It also says that government can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, and the employees have to accept that. If the government can make these sweeping changes, with little regard for what is right, or their own employees, imagine what other ideologically driven changes they can make that affect us all?

Secondly, this bill is a very large slippery slope. If the government can outlaw collective bargaining, essentially crushing the largest union in the state, what will that do in private industry? What is to prevent private entities (corporations) from banning collective bargaining in their organizations within that state? The legal precedent is now on the books and will allow private enterprise to use similar behaviors to their benefit. Conservatives love to talk about trickle down economic theory and in this instance there is a trickle down effect. When unions lose benefits in an industry those same benefits are restricted in the rest of that same public sector. This law is a gift to corporations hoping to restrict or eliminate benefits to their employees.

Thirdly, elimination of collective bargaining rights eliminates many of the protections afforded to labor. The government and the corporations will always have their cadre of representatives and lawyers to argue on their behalf. Taking that same benefit away from labor removes any expertise which may protect the worker from abuses and points to impartiality going out the window. Because many states are moving to the “right to work” model of law, the old adage of “you can’t fight city hall” will soon extend to “you can’t disagree with who you work for”. Without collective bargaining there to protect the rights of the workers employers will be able to bully their employees into a state of endured servitude.

Fourthly, and this is the argument that needs to be understood, this is an attack at our fundamental constitutional rights. Our first amendment rights guarantee us the rights to free assembly. Assembly is the process of gathering for the purposes of acting as a collective. Because every person at a collective assembly cannot have their own say, or share their own voice, we allow for representation on their behalf. This is the foundation of our government and our representative process. Collective bargaining is the basis of our governmental process. This is inherent to the function of our democracy. Elimination of collective bargaining rights and fair representation is challenge to our protected freedoms afforded through the constitution.

Finally, a few words about collective bargaining and what we could possibly lose because of this political action. Any of the benefits received through collective bargaining are a result of give and take. That is the way the bargaining process works. One side gives a benefit (salary) to receive another (pension or insurance). These benefits targeted by the conservatives are a direct result of giving immediate benefit, in the shape of salary, for long term benefit, in the shape of pension and health care insurance. To the rich and famous, this type of benefit is many times referred to as deferred compensation. The employee is giving up salary now so they may receive it downstream, when they retire and need it to survive on. This is an extremely important concept to understand. The employees gave up salary to invest in future compensation comprised of other benefits. A contract was struck, agreed to by both parties, for these future services in lieu of paying more money out in salaries. The state recognized the benefit of such an arrangement for their interests and readily signed the agreements. This is where things get really scary.

These benefit plans are reservoirs of cash. The state pays money into them, in lieu of paying salary. The employee has the option of paying into the same program, increasing their long-term benefit by fortifying the account. The benefit for the employee is obvious. The benefit for the state is largely unknown. As mentioned, these benefit plans are huge deposits of cash. They are liquid capital available for the state to use. And use these funds they do! States will go and borrow money from these benefit plans and use them for all sorts of state funded projects or reinvestment. Imagine what happens when the state finds it can’t pay its bills or the investment vehicle they placed those funds in hits a brick wall and crashes? Which payment do you think might be skipped or scrapped all together? Fortunately, Wisconsin is not currently in this situation. The Wisconsin State Employee Retirement System is healthy and stable. But, based on the Governor’s actions, this $80 billion pool of cash could become a target of his use and abuse.

So why should this all matter? Because this is not a budget balancing act we are watching unfold in Wisconsin. This is an attack on the little guy. This is an attack on workers. This is an attack on you and me. Governor Scott Walker, and the Koch brothers who finance him, are attacking one of the last protections we have from corporations. Collective bargaining is what prevents corporations from owning their employees, like they did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m not a union guy, but I do recognize their function and contribution to our society, and collective bargaining is one of those contributions. This function ended child labor and created the 40 hour work week. It contributed to the rights of workers and made sure employees had safe working environments and insurance against injury while on the job. It provided for mothers to have maternity leave and the birth of the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act). This improved the working conditions and livelihoods of every man and woman in this country. Eliminating collective bargaining puts these freedoms at risk and hands the power to prohibit our freedoms to the corporations and their bought and paid for politicians. If there was a political event that should get you up out of your seat and out in the streets this is it. This is not about balancing a budget like the media narrative presents, this is an attack our rights to assemble and work as a collective!

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