David Michael Miller
Gov. Scott Walker has found religion on so called right-to-work legislation after trying to distance himself from it for four years.
The political reason is clear. We could see this coming as soon as he introduced his budget a few weeks ago. His tack to the center cut off by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Walker went for a budget that is a hit parade of right-wing horrors.
So, the governor's support for this legislation makes complete sense in light of his national political ambitions. No reason to hold back now that he's going for broke with tea party primary voters.
But what's even more troubling is polling that shows public support for right to work. In a survey conducted for a conservative think tank, 62% of Wisconsinites said they support it. But almost the same percentage, 58%, were supportive of unions, and just over half, 52%, said that unions were good for the economy.
So, how can a public that supports the idea of unions also back legislation that is so damaging to labor?
Some of it has to do with the question. If you ask people whether workers should be forced to join a union, many push back against the idea of anyone being coerced to do anything. But if you were to take the time to explain that without that requirement, workers who don't pay union dues would still get all the benefits of collective bargaining -- if you were to use the term "free rider" -- a lot of people would see the same question differently.
"Right-to-work" is hard to be against. "Getting something for nothing" is hard to be for.
It's really a classic example of the tension between individual freedom and responsibility to the group. Americans are for both, but in this case a majority seems to be persuaded that right-to-work is all about freedom, or maybe they buy the Republican argument that this will be good for the economy overall.
On that second point, it's not. Simply put, unions benefit not just blue-collar workers but the middle class. In the mid-20th century, when unions were in their heyday, nationally 35% of private-sector workers were in a union. And during that period productivity and wages moved up together. That's because unions were there to demand labor's fair share of profits. And that didn't hurt the economy. Some of the most rapid growth rates in the U.S. economy coincide with the highest levels of union membership.
With their decline -- today only 7% of private-sector workers belong to a union -- it's capital that holds all the cards. The result is that virtually all the gains in the economy since the recovery began after the Great Recession have gone to the richest 1% of Americans. When unions were at their peak, top executives made about 20 times more than their average employees. Today that figure stands at 296 times more.
The results of all this are tremendously destabilizing to our society. When people work longer and harder for less money they become angry. The Democratic Party should be the institution in our society that channels the energy of that anger into positive directions. Instead, the anger has resulted in votes for Republicans, who are now pursuing policies that will just make the frustration even worse.
Democrats are in the deep minority in the state Legislature and have absolutely no power to stop right to work. The bill could very well pass the Assembly and be on the governor's desk by the end of this week.
The party as a whole has fumbled the messaging on this and so many issues so badly for so long, that a significant majority of the public who should feel otherwise supports the legislation.
Republicans have caught up to an advantage the Democrats once had on the technical side of voter identification and get-out-the-vote field efforts. Now, it's time for the Democrats to figure out how to be as good as the GOP at messaging. This should have never reached the public consciousness as a "right-to-work" bill. It should have always been the "free rider" bill.
Mostly, it's just about getting blue-collar and middle-class voters to see their own interests. So while it appears to be a foregone conclusion that this battle will be lost, it would be a good time for the Democrats to start making a more effective case for why disaffected voters should come back to them.
Dave Cieslewicz is a former mayor of Madison. Check out his blog at Citizen Dave.