Wisconsin Power Play

Union busting is always a power grab

Nobel laureate and economist Paul Krugman has a new column in the NY Times this week about the battle in Wisconsin. There, the newly-elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, has set out to destroy public worker unions by eliminating collective bargaining. But this effort is not about helping Wisconsin close a budget gap – a gap already made worse by the governor’s own doing in lowering taxes on the wealthy.

No, what is going on in Wisconsin is about power, says Krugman:

Why bust the unions? As I said, it has nothing to do with helping Wisconsin deal with its current fiscal crisis. Nor is it likely to help the state’s budget prospects even in the long run: contrary to what you may have heard, public-sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are paid somewhat less than private-sector workers with comparable qualifications, so there’s not much room for further pay squeezes.

So it’s not about the budget; it’s about the power.

So what if unions disappear?  Why should anyone but public workers in Wisconsin (and Ohio, and Indiana, and Michigan, and elsewhere) care about union busting there?

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

The “bitter irony” as Krugman describes it is that the oligarchy who oppose unions are the ones whose actions crashed our economy and devastated state and local budgets:

There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

Click here to read the full column, “Wisconsin Power Play”, by Paul Krugman.