Sunday, February 27, 2011

Which side are you on?

I just filled out an online poll asking whether I support Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Having gone on the record before the current controversy up there, I've already expressed dismay about Walker and his handling of federal funds going toward the development of high speed rail. It should then come as no surprise that I do not support Gov. Walker.

The poll also asked if I supported labor unions, if I think they're too powerful, and if I thought that workers in the public sector should be paid the same as their private sector counterparts. Honestly I'm a little more on the fence with these issues. Yes I think that the right to bargain collectively is a good idea, although I don't have it where I work. Unions served a very important purpose back in the days of the robber barons, and quarter an hour wages for back breaking, life threatening work. We've come a long way since that time, we now have the five day work week, the minimum wage, the ability to get disability payments if we are injured at work, pensions for when we retire, laws that protect our health and our rights on the job and many other benefits that we working stiffs would not have were it not for the unions. I'll be the first to say that we all owe a tremendous debt to the men and women who fought and sometimes died for the right of workers to unite.

Indeed the unions did a good job for all of us, American workers for a time were higher paid and better taken care of then their counterparts anywhere in the world. Of course all good things must come to an end and American companies simply could not compete by paying the relatively high wages and benefits that the unions demanded. American companies were excoriated when they moved their plants overseas or across the border to Mexico where they could pay the same worker a fraction of what they had to pay an American worker.

There in a nutshell is the divide between the right and the left regarding business and labor. In short, does a company's responsibility lie with making a profit, or with taking care of its employees? I can't tell you how many Facebook links I've received to the labor song "Which Side are You On?", or the number of people who have changed their profile picture to the fist raised in solidarity with the public workers of Wisconsin. I also have a few FB friends who have expressed in less dramatic fashion, tacit support for the the governor.

The company in question up in Wisconsin is the government, and profit may not be the rallying cry for the right, but solvency is. Governor Walker claims that the state is well on its way toward bankruptcy and drastic measures must be taken to keep the state afloat. On the left, folks say that Wisconsin is not in the dire state that the governor claims. It is in fact in way better fiscal shape than Illinois for example. They say that the governor is using his ploy to break the unions to gain attention and support from right wing circles and his fat cat friends.

Personally I find the governor's grand standing to be deplorable. Clearly he is trying to make a name for himself. I think it would have been much more effective and responsible for him to go to the unions and negotiate with them first, asking for concessions wherever necessary. If they said no, then it would be perfectly reasonable for him to go to the public and say: "Look, these are tough economic times and we all must sacrifice. I've tried to negotiate with the unions in good faith but they are unwilling to budge."

Instead he tries to push through a law taking away the unions' right to bargain on anything except salary. Now this is a man who posed in a political ad wearing boxing gloves. Clearly he knew his actions would create the resentment, protests, and media circus that we've seen for the past two weeks. The name Scott Walker is now known throughout the world. Congratulations Guv, you got what you wanted.

On the other hand, I come from Chicago, perhaps the ultimate union town, a place known for excesses such as exhibitors at trade shows not being allowed to plug a cord into an electrical outlet without paying a union electrician fifty bucks for the privilege. I've witnessed first hand the devastating loss of industries and the livelihoods they provided because of the greed of both the companies AND the unions. I've seen the well paid union teachers at my son's school vote overwhelmingly against adding ten minutes to their five and three quarter hour work day so the kids could have one recess break. And two years after no pay raise for myself, each year the expenses go up in our building as we are forced by union rules to give our janitor, who is better paid than I am, who will not lift a finger to do anything that is not explicitly in his job description as well as several things that are, a significant raise.

Clearly we all must sacrifice to get through these tough times. Perhaps what's going on now in Wisconsin is just the tip of the iceberg, as these issues likely will be surfacing soon, at a state legislature near you.

Hopefully it will be handled elsewhere better than it is in Madison right now.

Here are two excellent articles that illustrate my conundrum, making good points for both sides, this one against the governor and this one, chastising the unions.

So which side am I on?

I think I'll just sit this one out.

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