16,000 marched on Wisconsin's capital fighting for democracy

teacher protest

History has lessons for us-if we only listen. Thirty years ago Reagan began his war on labor when he fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers and destroyed their union. The message was clear: employers have no moral obligation to their workers, particularly when such a 'soft' sentiment conflicts with the bottom line: shareholder profits.

And so, during the Reagan years and beyond, thousands of employees were illegally fired when they sought to unionize.  And yet Reagan continues to be treated as an icon, even canonized in some circles, as evidenced by the outpouring of praise during his centennial.

This past Friday, in Wisconsin, "Little Reagan," Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, revealed his attitude about the working class when he proposed a law to strip away collective bargaining rights for public workers.  He did so, I believe, to mute the people into powerlessness.

Okay, he wouldn't put it that way; he is merely being efficacious as he endeavors to reduce the state's deficit.  However, as one worker put it, why do it on the backs of the working class? 

But even that response is beside the point. It gives Little Reagan an easy way out.  The real question here is: however we solve our problems, do we suspend democratic principles?  If you want to reduce the deficit and you see a way by making public workers pay more for their benefits, why would you take away the voice they have in at least arguing the other side of the issue?

If you want to win them over, do so with your arguments - not your might - and let the majority rule. A democracy isn't measured by results, but by the way it achieves results, whether pragmatically good or bad.  If all you want is efficiency, a better way to achieve it might be through a dictator.

Democracies, true democracies, are often very inefficient.  With public debates, voting, and the many checks and balances that keep overlapping powers from overstepping their bounds, they sometimes move tortoise-like.  But the process nicely avoids tyrannies.

Noam Chomsky has repeatedly remarked that a country's attitude toward its unions is a good measure of their attitude toward democracy - their real attitude toward true democracy.  If this is correct, we must deduce that Reagan and the Reaganites-and of course we must include "Little Reagan" in this assessment - have contempt for democracy - true democracy.

But "Little Reagan" was right about one thing: if workers didn't see this coming (and I might add, when they voted him in office), "they are in a coma." Was labor in a coma in 1984 when the majority of union workers voted to reelect Reagan?

Of course, some comas are induced through lack of education, hopelessness and despair, or from being inundated daily with propaganda from the powers that be.  On the other hand, it should be noted that often patients emerge from a coma, and when they do, watch out!

Yesterday's demonstration at the State Capitol adequately proves the point.  If indeed many of the 16,000 protestors were in a coma, they certainly looked alive as they marched outside the Capitol and then proceeded to enter (and stay) inside.  Moreover, they were crystal clear on what is at stake, as evidenced by their shouts and cheers, and messages on hundreds of signs. (Story continues after video.)

Little Reagan wasn't in a coma, not at all. He adequately prepared for such a reaction as he put the National Guard on alert, ready to fill the positions of potentially striking employees. If push comes to shove, I wonder how many people he will fire in this age of obscenely high unemployment.

One of Reagan's cronies, Reagan-appointed Donald Dotson, who was the Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union representation elections and labor-management bargaining, quite revealingly stated that "unionized labor relations have been the major contributors to the decline and failure of once-healthy industries" and have caused "destruction of individual freedom."  I am sure this sums up the reason why unions in this country are not in good standing, and why, at bottom, our own Little Reagan is doing what he is doing.  But someone should have pointed out to Dotson and to all those who share this view, the rich man indeed is quite free to live under a bridge in the inner city if he so chooses, but is the poor man free not to?

Michael Synowicz is a community college teacher active in Citizen Action in Milwaukee. Image/AP

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  • One correction to an otherwise excellent article: most union members and families voted against Reagan in 1984. He won 40% among such voters. This was more than Republicans usually get from union people, but a long way from a majority. Just to set the record straight.

    Posted by Hank Millstein, 02/24/2011 12:49am (3 years ago)

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