United we stand, divided we beg. Coffee anyone?

The title of this post is taken from some signs held by picketers at the capitol this week. This has definitely been a crash-course in the history and value of the labor movement for many people in Wisconsin. Apologies for the long ramble, but this is complex and hard to distill.

Here are my thoughts on the various issues at stake, from small to big:


Budget cuts

The state is not in a deficit, and we even would have had a budget surplus if Walker had accepted the federal stimulus money (although the money was for a misguided project, so I’ll cede that one).  The proposed cuts work out to $32/resident, yet are given exclusively to state employees.  State employee unions proposed similar cuts themselves last December and agreed to the cuts as part of this bill verbally last week, and officially this week.  Despite some grandstanding from the right, absolutely nobody picketing, nobody writing op-ed pieces or giving media interviews, is complaining about the cuts.  In a rare moment (these days) of bipartisan agreement, everyone (miraculously) agrees that these are necessary in the current times.  In fact, the cuts were originally proposed by the employee unions themselves.  That doesn’t mean the cuts aren’t decimating some families, and wrecking many state services though.

From an OpEd in the New York Times:

The game is up when unionized state workers demonstrate a sense of shared sacrifice but Republican lawmakers won’t even allow them a seat at the table. For unions and Democrats in the Midwest, this is an existential struggle, and it is one worth waging.

Unions

The bill proposes preventing unions from bargaining about anything except wages (which are anyway capped to inflation, so the effect is basically to prevent unions from bargaining at all), from collecting union dues  directly from paychecks, and requires unions to validate their existence via secret ballot every year.  This one is drawing hysterical reactions from both sides.  Some people feel practically religious about unions, especially here in the ex-factory states where working conditions were previously appalling and unions were once the heroes that saved and protected the working people.  Surely unions have brought many benefits to everyone – weekends, workplace safety, medical coverage for workplace accidents, overtime pay, disability pay, etc.  The alternative to this can be seen in our outrage over sweatshops in developing countries.  Yes, you can always find people desperate enough to work under those conditions, but is that the kind of industry and living conditions you want for your neighbors, the kind of humanity you want to live around?  I sincerely hope not!  However, unions have moved beyond these basic decency measures and have created a tangled bureaucracy that has justifiably angered the business community.  It is fabulous that unions are ensuring due process to protect workers from being fired for raising a concern or refusing to sleep with the boss.  But,  the 6-months-or-more process of firing a legitimately terrible employee could certainly be improved.  In theory, collective bargaining can save companies money, or at least not costing them, as negotiating a single contract should be less time-intensive than negotiating thousands of individual contracts.  Benefits should save companies money too.  Group health insurance (for employers) is cheaper than paying for thousands of individual insurance contracts (or paying employees enough that they could cover themselves individually, which might not even be an option for many).  Refusing to acknowledge these things is drawing a fair amount of anger.

Another OpEd from the NYT:

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.

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

So, as I see it, the evangelical union/labor folks are being blind to the costs and baggage of accumulated union policies, while the industry/evangelical business folks are being blind to the social and financial costs of NOT having unions.  There’s a discussion to be had over reforming unions, but nobody is having that.  Why can’t the question be, “how can we ensure fair business practices, due process, safe environments, and decent wages for all in a way that supports business”?  It IS possible, many businesses have taken the lead in this, and there are lots of great ideas out there.  But, nobody is going to have that talk at gunpoint, which is what the current situation is.  Wouldn’t it be nice if folks would sit down and discuss how to meet the needs of everyone, businesses and people alike?  Wouldn’t that provide better outcomes than seeing who has the bigger stick, a technique that seems highly unlikely to generate anything worthwhile?

The rise of the Coffee Party

I feel that the core of the protests is not so much about union-related issues, but a left-leaning movement akin to the rise of the Tea Party.  I’m going to call them the Coffee Party for lack of a more appropriate hot beverage.  Much like the Tea Party formed after feeling that the Washington oligarchy was ignoring their concerns, the Coffee Party feels like Washington (or locally, Madison) has been taken over by corporate interests, and that, when the Koch brothers, Haliburton, Enron, and Exxon say jump, the government says “how high?”.  The prank-call of Scott Walker just added fuel to the fire, not because he admitted to more wrong-doing than your average politician (merely accepting bribes and considering sending in “troublemakers” since the picketers have been too peaceful), but because of his obvious “chumminess” with an out-of-state business interest group that is not interested in doing anything but taking resources from Wisconsin.  It’s a sell-out through and through.

The Coffee Party feels that we’ve been selling out to the middle-east by buying their oil, selling out to China buy borrowing money, selling out to big businesses who want to end environmental regulation, and who fight things like health care, not because it is too expensive, but because it would hurt their short-term profit margins. I don’t want dirty water or dirty air.  Living in China SUCKS right now because they can’t reign in their environmental problems and we’ve finally made good headway after fighting ours for years. The field of economics these days is all about including the true costs of actions in the bottom line.  For example, a paper plant dumping toxins into a river creates costs for the residents downstream who have to pay more to get clean water.  The plant should carry those costs as part of the cost of doing business.  If it makes paper more expensive, well, that’s the what it will have to be.  Maybe we would use less paper.  When I buy gas for my car, I should pay the costs of cleaning up the carbon I emit.  Sure it will make things more expensive, but otherwise, what’s the end result?

What I see, and what I think the Coffee Party sees, is continuing refusal by big businesses to pay their costs, while continuously insisting that the government and taxpayers pay those costs.  They want educated workers, but not to pay for education.  They want clean water for their factories, but don’t care if the water goes out dirty.  They want to drill for oil, but don’t want to pay for safety systems and do not or can not clean up the spill.  They’d rather fund prisons than living wages, rather fund missiles than diplomacy, rather fund oil wars than search for clean energy.

The politics

I’m torn on the actual issues being debated in Wisconsin right now, in that I see the middle ground and not the extremes, which is what’s being discussed out there.  But what is REALLY pissing me off is the WAY things are being done here.  It’s not just the presentation of an unpopular bill, it’s trying to ram a bill with huge changes to every aspect of the state down people’s throats in 3 days.  I don’t think Republicans are unique in running with the lead when they have it, but this is on a different scale than we’ve had before.   They wouldn’t contribute to the national health care bill, despite repeated requests, except to bash it.  They won’t discuss the Wisconsin bill except to demonize those who are against it.  Over and over, the right has said “it’s my way or the highway”.  Tax breaks for the wealthy are preserved at all costs.  HOW they have attracted so much support from the poor and ignorant in the South boggles my mind, as the cuts they propose will hurt those folks the hardest.  But the democrats are spineless and useless.  My friend in DC who works with legislators from both parties summed it up when she talked about how the republicans would come and talk to her and say “we want X” and we want it worded THIS WAY.  It is clear and to the point.  The dems would come in and say “We want something like Y, and we aren’t sure about the best way to word it, let’s check on that”.  Epic FAIL.

At the end of the day, though, the dems are (generally) arguing for things that will benefit people, while the republicans are arguing for things that hurt them, and so I find myself sympathizing with the goals of the dems, if not their methods.  Both are incompetent at actually solving the truly monumental problems ahead of us, although again, I feel like the dems are at least offering to deal with the reps, who offer nothing in return.

Then there’s the LIES.  I’m so tired of the lies.  Walker says he’s not in bed with the Koch brothers until it turns out, whoops, he is.  FOX news has been saying the most outrageous things about the protests here all week.  (Grandpa – there has been NOTHING but the utmost peaceful singing, speeches, and walking around holding signs.  There have been 12 arrests, despite over a million people picketing the capitol for 10 days now.  Yesterday there were a quarter million people all day and there were no arrests.  There’s hardly been a swear word.  People are bringing the tiny contingent of Tea Partiers food and taking a great deal of care that they aren’t hassled.  People have organized voluntary clean-up crews to ensure that the capitol isn’t ravaged by the large crowds. ) Although the fleeing dem senators have held up the budget bill vote (or, as their quarter-million supporters would call it, heroically giving citizens time to read and understand the bill before they vote on it), the assembly (our “house”) has been voting on issues.  In one memorable meeting last week, the vote was scheduled for 4 pm, but the Republicans showed up early and held the vote at 3:45 deliberately so the dems wouldn’t be there (a silly and unnecessary trick, since the dems are outnumbered anyway).  It’s despicable tricks like these that leave such a bad taste in my mouth.  A government that forces bills through in a hurry (when there is no external reason to rush), tricks its own members, lies about its fiscal interests is not acting in good faith.

That’s what the Coffee Party is angry about.  We’re pissed off that Bush lied and dragged us into expensive wars.  We’re pissed off that we can’t find anybody in any party to stand up to big businesses and protect basic rights.  We’re  pissed off that we actually have to spend time and money fighting against bills that soften the definition of rape, allow people to shoot doctors who perform abortions without trial, and, in a breathtaking “you couldn’t have made this up if you tried”, charge women who have miscarriages with attempted murder.  We’re tired of the assault on science and reality.  I am truly astounded at educated people making arguments that are basically “if X is true, that would be a catastrophe.  Therefore X cannot possibly be true”.  Sorry folks, X, whether it is global warming, vaccine safety, the decline of US greatness, the extent of pollution, the amount of oil dumped into the Gulf, the number of people we are holding captive against international law, the number of people we have tortured, IT EXISTS!  A debate over whether an elephant weighs 6 tons or 8 tons does not mean that people are unsure whether elephants are big animals or not!!!

So here’s me, announcing my proud involvement in the Coffee Party.  I’m not for or against unions, for or against budget cuts, for or against the government.  I’m against selling our basic rights and liberties to corporations, against the large and overly artificial distance being placed between our political parties, fracturing our nation.  I’m for upholding civil rights, including the right to be female, the right to be a minority, the right to organize, the right to have bills debated and considered, the right for citizens to participate in a democracy, the right to clean air and water.  I can’t believe I’m having to fight for the right to not be shot on sight or to have a miscarriage.  The Dark Ages seem to have been more lenient.

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