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The Wisconsin recall: how the movement could have helped

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Part 1.

Since the recall was run as a conventional political campaign, instead of one grounded in the turmoil of last year, it’s fair to ask how the latter might have looked. Doug Henwood offered these thoughts:

Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign – media, door knocking, phone calling – to agitate, educate, and organize on the importance of the labor movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they’d made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker’s agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.

It seemed like the Barrett campaign never bothered to make the case for unions in general or collective bargaining in particular. I kept thinking, did last winter just go down the memory hole? Why isn’t anyone bringing up the unjust law that was the catalyst for all this?

It’s possible Barrett didn’t share activists’ sense of urgency, or Democrats had reasons for running a conventional campaign, or there were some really hard hitting attacks on Walker’s union busting not visible outside the state. But Barrett’s campaign sure seemed spectacularly unsuited for the moment it occurred in.

The unwillingness to speak up forcefully in favor of collective bargaining left the field open to the right. Bruce Murphy’s post-election analysis shows how the issue got framed in conservative-friendly terms. He uses the Milwaukee County pension scandal from years ago as his jumping off point.

I don’t think it’s specious to keep highlighting it, either. It could be seen as nursing a grievance or as trying to wring every last ounce of political advantage out of a favorable issue, but I’m a believer in revealing moments: Those rare times when some person or body does something that shows an essential quality they are otherwise careful to conceal.

That is why I think Paul Weyrich’s comments from way back in 1980 are still worth quoting: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Vote suppression is a longstanding conservative priority, but most of the time they are too smart to state that plainly. So they jump up and down about things like vote fraud that exist only in their elaborately constructed fantasies but not here on planet Earth, and in the name of fighting that nonproblem create an actual problem. Weyrich’s moment of candor deserves to be remembered because it reveals what is really going on.

Of course, that same principle is available to conservatives. Someone like Murphy is free to make the case that the pension scandal deserves to be mentioned even a decade later because to him it reveals something essential about unions. If you want to know what they are really after and what they’ll really do when given the opportunity, look at the pension scandal. It has iconic status on the right and will be regularly hauled out by them for as long as the left cannot be bothered to come up with a forceful response.

Murphy starts with the greedy, corrupt public official angle (emph. in orig.): “County Executive F. Thomas Ament and the board of supervisors passed a plan that would have given Ament a $2 million lump sum pension had he served until 2008 as he planned. Countless county veterans left with payouts of $300,000 to $1 million, and this was in addition to a monthly pension they will draw for life. The plan’s obscene costs must be paid by local property taxpayers, few of whom will ever enjoy such a lucrative retirement.”

Note that this has nothing to do with unions or collective bargaining. That doesn’t matter though; the ability of the right to conflate public corruption with unions is what matters, and liberals need to find a way to sever that connection in the public mind. Running a conventional D vs. R campaign is just about the worst way to do that, because it invites all those who might have been sympathetic towards the thousands protesting in the statehouse to think instead of party machinery.

An argument like Murphy’s is almost guaranteed to get traction then, and here is the irony: Those involved in the movement might well have exactly the same dim view of the (risk-averse, cynical, grasping) officials and union leaders as the conservatives do.

Next, Murphy brings up this: “Numerous UW officials gained a $7,000 to $12,000 sweetener in their annual retirement payment…[and] a second plan that increased the lifetime retirement payment for some teachers (again, a privileged group of veterans) by as much as 400%. Add to that the lifetime health insurance Milwaukee teachers had successfully bargained for, and the impact for taxpayers was huge.”

Here again, there was no rebuttal. How many people think an extra $7,000 per year in a pension is an outrageous extravagance? What was the amount the second plan added up to? More generally, what do people think is a fair and decent pension for those who have spent decades in public service? Should we begrudge them every penny and honor those commitments with an air of pinch-faced resentment? Or is it fair to say that a comfortable retirement is an appropriate benefit for those who went into professions with a lower wage ceiling because they wanted to serve something more than a corporation’s executives and shareholders?

It’s not hard to make a case against the politics of grievance: Hey, if cops, teachers and firefighters have a good pension, why shouldn’t you? Instead of trying to chisel them out of their benefits why not start asking why yours aren’t that good? Maybe the scumbags rewarding themselves hand over fist could share a little with the workers who create the profits in the first place. Maybe workers should be able to successfully make demands on management. Maybe a strong union and collective bargaining would help do that. Seems like a winning message to take to the voters.

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