Friday, June 15, 2012

Why did Scott Walker win?

There has been a lot of commentary about the Wisconsin election in which recalled governor Scott Walker won his seat back.

Scott Walker made headlines just over a year ago by bringing in legislation that virtually eliminates public sector bargaining rights. In response, over 100,000 teachers, fire fighters, city workers and others occupied the state legislature. Several Democratic senators fled the state to disrupt the vote. In the end, the legislation passed, but a campaign to recall Walker and some other Republican senators was successful.

The most facile view is that this is a condemnation of labour and a move to the right by the US electorate. This is the view promoted by the right and of course serves their interests.

Some have pointed to the failure of labour, and public sector unions in particular, to adapt to change and become "partners" in reform.

On the left, many point to the interference of big money in American politics, and the fact that Walker's campaign had 7 times the funding of Democratic challenger. While this no doubt had an impact, I don't think it is the whole story.

I am also in the "blame the unions" camp, but for significantly different reasons.

The big mistake that happened in Wisconsin is that there was no strike action. Despite massive support, huge crowds taking action in the legislature, and significant "sick ins", no union went on strike and no union called for a general strike or a public sector strike. When unions don't take action to defend their members' rights, members lose interest in paying dues. Now that union membership has become voluntary it is not surprising that the teachers union and others have lost significant numbers of members. Why pay dues to an organization that doesn't actually take action to improve things?

But even given this decision, after the successful recall campaign unions and the left should have been much more clear in defending union principles. This is true not only of the Wisconsin election campaign, but of the stance of many public sector unions in the US generally.

We do not need to become partners in backwards reform movements, we need to be principled critics to attacks on union rights and public services. Rather than stating, for example, that yes, perhaps union members should pay some of their health insurance benefits but not too much, we should be arguing that these benefits are part of an overall compensation package that was negotiated and to claw back is equivalent to a pay cut. We need to point out that pensions are simply deferred salary that has been earned, and to claw back pension benefits is to steal that deferred income. We need to remind the public that seniority rights are to protect against discrimination, nepotism and favoritism.

We also need a principled public defense of public services in the public interest. "Reform" has become a euphemism for privatization and it is important to call a spade a spade. Every so-called reform of public services being pushed right now really aims to reduce public spending, curtain service delivery and quality, and to increase the private delivery and control of public services. Think charter schools, for example.

The lesson from Wisconsin is that we need to reform our organizations to ensure that we speak out for what is truly in the public interest, not simply try to lesson the damage. The slogans should not be "These cuts are too deep" but rather "Tax the rich".

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