A Lament: The end of a teacher contract
To put aside the Badlands agenda for a moment, it as a teacher I write this post.
As of now, I, and every other public school teacher in Milwaukee, am working without a contract. This is not a feel good moment. The end of collective bargaining is not just a blow to the profession, it is indeed a blow to democracy. Act 10 as constructed by Governor Scott Walker and passed by the Wisconsin Assembly was always promoted as a budget bill, but in reality it is an anti-union bill. The end of collective bargaining is an unveiled attack on unions, and in doing so, it is an attack on democracy itself.
Those who do not favor unionism may scoff. But just keep in mind, that presently, active union membership in this country is lower than it has been for about the last 100 years. Inequality of wealth distribution has not been so great in America since the Great Depression. Unions historically provided a mechanism to provide some economic balance and equality, hence the growth of the American middle class until the relentless whittling down of unionism gained momentum under Reagan.
The 2011 Act 10 in Wisconsin was a blatant move to restrict worker rights in the public sector and continued the political conservative trend toward anti-unionism. Act 10 made renewal of union membership a much more difficult process among public workers, and membership has also been more difficult to sustain—with no collective bargaining, many past members simply wonder, “So what’s the use of a union then?” End result: An all around weakening of the union and union power.
That last word is what is at the heart of the matter: power. When unions are weakened, management, private interest, and ownership gain power and with power, they gain profit. The sectors that hire workers are the ones right now rigging the system in their favor and the workers, those who actually produce product (and yes, teachers too produce product—it’s called an education), find themselves losing influence, losing rights, losing wages, and losing economic stability.
My argument is simple: when unions are weakened, then democracy is weakened. When we ask what is the purpose of a union, at its core, the purpose is to provide an organization by which workers can have some control and influence over their own working lives. In other words, unions empower workers, and workers are people, and the last time I heard a definition of democracy, it was something like a government for the people and by the people.
A democracy demands that people have power. Unions provide that. Unions provide a balance in a society that has numerous power stations, but the ones with the most money will have an advantage. When money rules, democracy loses. When economic disparity grows, democracy shrinks. Unions are about people, about people having power, about people having a say in their every day lives, about making public institutions stronger and the single most important public institution in America is its democracy.