As events escalate in Wisconsin it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to do away with collective bargaining rights for state workers is a blatant attempt at union busting. It’s different than much of the union busting that I study in the literary and historical work surrounding my dissertation. Nevertheless it amounts to the same thing. Even his briefing of the National Guard harkens back to the days when state governors called in the Guard all the time to quell labor unrest.
My work has led me to a number of conclusions about labor unions in the United States. Unions do not always work. They do not always win. Nor do they necessarily fully represent the views of all their members. That’s the nature of any representative organization (including our political system). What is important in the presence of unions in a democratic society though is the right to bargain and the right to debate. However, what is happening with Walker’s proposal in Wisconsin is not bargaining or debate. It is the legislating away of the right to organize whole cloth. When the government refuses to debate and negotiate in good faith with its own citizens in the form of labor unions we stand on a very deep and disturbing precipice. Walker has steered his state directly to that precipice this week by refusing to acknowledge or enter dialogue with Wisconsin’s public labor unions.
Mother Jones, agitator for the United Mine Workers and famously labeled “the most dangerous woman in America,” famously said “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Since I began studying labor and labor literature I’ve taken it as a constant reminder of why I focus on labor literature and why it has lasting ramifications and importance for our society today. Looking deeply into the work of authors and agitators of the 19th and early 20th century leaves one aware not only of their sacrifices, but of the vast gains made to our society and our national standard of living through the right to collective act and negotiate with employers. Let me be unambiguous in this: people have died for the right to organize in unions. Many people in this nation have faced oppression in the form of crippling poverty, unsafe and exploitative work environments, and outright violence from employers and government officials on both the state and federal level. The right to organize has been built on sacrifice. It’s a history that is bitter in its numerous setbacks and perhaps overreaching at times in its more radical strains. Yet the legacy of labor organizations in the United States has helped improve the living conditions of millions of Americans. More often than not the conflicts, sacrifices and work that have gone into making these improvements is overlooked or forgotten in our popular conscious until it strikes home or until it grabs our attention as a nation as the protests in Madison have begun to.
So, Mother Jones: pray for the dead, fight like hell for the living. What’s happening in Wisconsin has deep ramifications not only for the workers in that state, but for the rest of the country as well. For these reasons and many more, I stand in solidarity with Wisconsin workers who are fighting for their rights.
Rachel Madow on the stakes in Wisconsin.
NPR’s John Nichols on how Wisconsin unions will win.
Salon explains the significance of Walker’s suggestion of calling in the National Guard.
MSNBC reports on planned counter protests for tomorrow.