Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Where I Have Been

At the end of February, I promised to write a post that specifically addressed the political climate in Wisconsin and why it scared me. I've tried to do that very thing four times now. My last three attempts ended in frustration and the deletion of everything that I had written. This is my fourth attempt. I suspect it to be frustrating; no maddening. This time, I intend to actually publish it (on this blog) even if it doesn't say exactly what I want it to.

The trouble is that this issue is complex and dynamic; it's always changing even though my opinions haven't. At least not much. There aren't any simple explanations. It's about my life, my children's lives, my extended family and their overall well-being, and in many senses the country at large. How can anyone write something object when it feels as though everything is on the line? Needless to say, it's heavily biased when I want it to be objective.

I am a proud American. I love this country and all it has to offer. I appreciate knowing I am safe. The car next to me is not going to explode. I can go to the grocery store without being mugged. Going to a friend's house in the evening, even by myself, isn't of concern because the streets are safe. Terrorists, mobs, etc. are not going to come to my door and demand to take my children or my husband. I can vote without fear of retribution or threat.  I am able to speak my mind publicly and not be thrown in jail. I have rights that are protected by a government that is "by the people and for the people."

I am a proud Wisconsinite. The winters are cold and sometimes unbearably long, but Wisconsin has long been a state of proud traditions and lofty ideals, most of which I believe in. Wisconsin has historically shown that it values its people. The state has remarkable programs for the poor, the disabled, the sick, the veterans, and others who are struggling. I know many people who have moved to the state in order to access these programs. It has long been a state that understood the need to educate future generations. The public schools push all students to strive for more. They have unique programming including dual language immersion programs and technology programs that start in kindergarten and expand throughout a child's school experience. Wisconsin, at large, is environmentally conscious. Mandated recycling programs, protection of forests and wetlands, initiatives for clean energy (such as wind farms), and strong agricultural programs that have regulations far stricter than the federal regulations and these are just a few pieces of evidence that supports this.

For these reasons, amongst many others, I am scared of what is happening politically. There have been problems for years, decisions made that I know of vaguely or am blissfully ignorant of that have lead us to this point. However, the suggested fixes go against the grain of Wisconsin (everything listed above would be dismantled or damaged beyond repair) and I see them as damaging the state and the people who call Wisconsin home. We are pitted against one another in a battle that has nothing to do with the functioning of the state, in my opinion, but for the political advantage of one party over another and the aspirations of the Governor to move on to the national stage.

It has been proposed that collective bargaining rights for public sector employees (nurses, teachers, snowplow drivers, social workers, etc) be taken away. They can keep the ability to negotiate for wages, but only to the rate of inflation. Now, I don't think unions are perfect. There are things I would like to see them change. But, I have come to believe that they are instrumental in maintaining a strong middle class.

Unions work to make sure employees receive a fair wage and benefits, safe working conditions, and job security. Unionized companies (private or public) tend to set the bar for non-unionized companies. In other words, they create a competition for fair treatment of employees. What does this mean? All workers benefit financially and in creating a work-life balance.

With fair wages and benefits, workers are able to live a quality life-style. The $75 gallon of milk at Target looks better than the $3 gallon of milk at the gas station. (Yes, milk at Target costs $75 because you can't go in to Target to buy just one thing. You always leave with other things.) Target then has a larger profit span and therefore puts money back into the community. More people, making decent wages, come in and buy more milk and the cycle continues. Bigger profit, more community support.

What happens when the $3 gallon of milk becomes the only option because a $75 gallon of milk isn't attainable anymore? Well, Target's profits begin to shrink, the community receives fewer and smaller financial gifts, Target doesn't have a reason to employ as many staff because their profits are down so they lay people. Now more people are unemployed which means even less $75 gallons of milk and we have a new cycle that continuously repeats. And the programs that received funding from Target are in more demand and have fewer resources to support the people who need their services. It's a downward spiral that hurts the already poor, the working class, small businesses, and eventually even the wealthy.

     *** A side tangent because it is important to me: For those who say I've just proven that public sector employees have cushy jobs, keep in mind that I was referring to unions in both the private and public sector. If you still think public sector employees have it easy, Google for a comparison between total compensation (which includes salary and benefits) and you'll find they make an average of 6-8% less than private sector employees per year and that the gap is widening quickly. Also, instead of being mad that the Jones'  have better benefits, you should be angry with your employer for not giving you the same. The Jones' don't decide your salary and benefits, but your employer does. ***

My other contention with getting rid of unions is purely political. Before I go too far into that, I want to help you understand the terms that I am going to use. 1. Democrats (a.k.a Dems): tend to be more progressive and represent the poor and middle class. 2. Republicans (a.k.a GOP): tend to be more conservative and side with corporations and rights for the wealthy. 3. Tea Party: a radical branch of the Republican party that falls completely on the side of large corporation's the wealthy elite privatization, and smaller governmental control. 4. Citizens United: in this case, I am referring to the Supreme Court case that determined that corporate spending is covered under the first amendment. Politically speaking, this means that they can give unlimited financial donations to any candidate they chose and not have to reveal themselves as the source.

Better funded candidates usually win elections because they can outspend on getting their name in the public. And the public typically choses who they are going to vote for based on the familiarity of a candidate's name or their party line (if they have one). Most voters are uninformed on a candidates platform and past voting record. Unions do fund the campaigns of some candidates and those candidates are almost always democratic. Corporations do the same thing, but their financial reserves are much deeper than that of the unions, and they tend to support Republicans. Over this last cycle, they have also begun representing Tea Party members in large numbers. None of this should come as a huge surprise since each group is supporting the candidates that most closely represent their interests.

Now, back to my point.

By getting rid of unions, the Republican and Tea Party can realistically win most elections, creating governments (locally and nationally) that rule under super majorities. It means that the Democratic Party becomes a permanent minority party, like independent candidates, and is therefore rendered powerless in protecting the groups of people they typically represent. It means that our political system of checks and balances doesn't work because our representatives all sit on one side of the scale. This is a dangerous form of government under any party: republican, Democratic, Tea Party, or Independent.

What does that look like in action? Wisconsin (and other states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana) are prime examples. I am most familiar with Wisconsin and this is where we come full circle. The 'budget repair bill' and the budget bill are opposed by a majority of adult residents in the state according to polls. (I have looked at polls by democrats, republicans, and non-partisan sources.) They all show that 60-85% of Wisconsinites are opposed to these bills passing. Based on the requirement of a 2/3s majority to pass it through, if the elected officials were really doing what the people wanted (and in my opinion, what is in the best interest of the state based on history and the examples of states who have made similar changes already), it couldn't pass. There simply wouldn't be enough votes to make a quorum.

Rather, even though several have expressed concerns with various parts of the bill, they are voting along party lines. The Republicans have a super majority (the Governor, the House, and the Senate are dominated by Republicans). That has resulted in a flat out refusal to negotiate or work toward a compromise. And they don't have to because they don't need the votes of the Democrats to pass the bill. Our checks and balances system is off. The controlling party can do whatever it pleases.

The Republicans/ Tea Party are in control and are working to set up a system of maintaining that control indefinitely. They represent the interests of large corporations which represent only the wealthiest individuals in the nation. The official definition of this type of system is oligarchy: government or rule by a few. Some examples of countries that are oligarchical are China, North Korea, Tunisia, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, and many communist countries. These are not places where I would chose to live and I doubt many Americans would chose this for themselves, their children, or their grandchildren. Yet, passing bills like the budget repair bill makes it possible to go in that direction.

It can't happen here, you say? This seems radical and far reaching? You're right. It does. Even as I am typing this I think it sounds kind of psychotic. Quite honestly, it scares me. But then I think about the lawsuits over the freedom of speech and right to assemble (constitutional rights) that have been filed against this administration in the last three weeks. I thought about the blatant breaking of laws (Open Meetings law) and ethics violations (assembly vote, locking the public out of their state capitol, refusing to hold public input hearings, threatening illegal actions against the Democrats who left) we've witnessed in the last three weeks. I though about the changing of public employee positions into government positions as appointed by the Governor. I thought about the utter contempt expressed for the Democrats and for those expressing uncertainty withing the Republican Party. If we are witnessing this behavior in a three week time period and these bills haven't even passed yet, then what will happen over the next 4 years? And what about in 50 years if things don't change?

My plea:

Regardless if you agree with unions or not, recognize that they do play a role in our economy because of their fundamental goal of employee rights. They play a role in our politics that balances the roles large corporations and the independently wealthy play.  Think about the consequences of losing them and decide which threat you are more afraid of: having unions represent public sector workers or what their absence means to you. Then stand up for what you believe in and make some noise. Worthy opportunities don't present themselves all that often.

*** Prompted by my life and taken from the blog I keep for my family and friends that live too far away. 

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