The heavy-handed tactics of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin has awakened the US labor movement, and a wider class consciousness, as much as any event in the past 30 years. Two new polls out in the past 24 hours not only confirm this, they reveal a coalition remarkably similar to the coalition occupying the Capitol in Madison for the last two weeks.
The Pew Research Center’s topline stats show Wisconsinites favoring the public employee unions over Governor Walker by 42-31. But dig deeper. Among the 18-29 set, a vanishing small number of which belong to unions, the number expands to 46-13. Among nonwhites, it expands to 51-19. Among those who make less than $75,000 a year, it’s roughly 48-25 (I had to add a couple numbers together there). The future of the country is strongly on the side of workers in this struggle, forming the backbone of a new progressive alliance, a youth-labor alliance of color.
The New York Times/CBS national poll is even more pronounced. Collective bargaining rights are favored 60-33. 56% oppose cutting worker pay or benefits to fix budget deficits. By a nearly 2-1 margin, people would rather increase taxes than cut public worker pay. These majorities held even in households with no union members. They don’t provide the breakdown among the young or the nonwhite, but I suspect it would be the same.
The coalition supporting collective bargaining rights usually talks about the issue in the same manner as Phil Merritt, profiled in the NYT/CBS poll. They see it as a matter of basic fairness, and they identify those workers as part of the great middle class, which the malefactors of great wealth have been trying tirelessly to shrink:
Phil Merritt, 67, a retired property manager from Crossville, Tenn., who identifies himself as an independent, explained in a follow-up interview why he opposed weakening bargaining rights for public workers. “I just feel they do a job that needs to be done, and in our country today if you work hard, then you should be able to have a home, be able to save for retirement and you should be able to send your kids to college,” he said. “Most public employees have to struggle to do those things, and generally both spouses must work.”
Yesterday you had Eric Cantor and Mitch Daniels basically intimate that public employees didn’t count as job-holders (Montana’s Brian Schweitzer begs to differ). You have a new Republican Party, animated by a rump south that has consistently stifled workers’ rights, wanting to turn the rest of America that way.
But the people don’t agree. They identify with workers who are having their rights in the workplace taken from them. They have bad bosses too. They’d welcome the same protections. They want to believe in an American dream again, and they see the people who protect their streets, fight their fires, process their benefit checks, take their pictures at the DMV, guard their prisons and keep the infrastructure of democracy rolling along as friends and brothers in a struggle against an imbalanced and out-of-control structure of wealth. They see unions as integral to being able to regain that balance. And they understand that a union without the ability to bargain is no union at all, and will quickly fizzle, as they have in other states that were successful in what Governor Walker is attempting.
We need unions because we need some group at a level of society that can be heard to argue for the benefits of a productive economy to flow to the working man and woman. Thanks to the shock of what Scott Walker is doing in Wisconsin, as well as other right-wing Governors across the country (John Kasich is also violating current collective bargaining agreements by refusing to meet with unions in Ohio), those groups are getting heard, by new coalitions who are using the same techniques, pooling their voices to stand up for the rights of everyone. While ultimately, the fight in Wisconsin and elsewhere is a rearguard action, it has awakened a sense of purpose and self-worth in a broad swath of America. I truly believe that because I saw it with my own eyes.
The employed, the unemployed, the unionized, the non-unionized, the private sector and the public sector have come together in one corner of the Upper Midwest to say no, that they matter, and that they will have themselves and their friends treated as such. Nothing scares the elites more than unity and organization.