David Michael Miller
As protesters converged on the Capitol, and Wisconsin became a so-called right-to-work state, I was sitting across the table from Progressive magazine staff and their union representative from Chicago, negotiating cost-of-living raises, job descriptions and the details of restructuring in our tiny, century-old magazine.
For years, I sat on the labor side of these negotiations. Now I am management during a time of massive, unsettling change for our state, our industry and our workplace.
Frankly, I need an oppositional negotiation with our tiny staff like I need a hole in the head. But I don't have a choice. We are a union shop. Plus, we are The Progressive. If we can't work with our union, who can?
As union members carrying signs streamed past the windows of our conference room, I thought about the general antipathy to unions Gov. Scott Walker has tapped so successfully with his "divide and conquer" politics.
Anyone who has ever felt impatient with rules and bureaucracy can relate to the message the Republicans are selling: motivated individuals can get things done more efficiently without being weighed down by a lumbering institutional process.
"Freedom" from institutional constraint has its strong appeal.
On both the management and labor sides of the table I've felt that itchiness. Reaching an agreement can be exhausting, frustrating, downright maddening sometimes.
There is a clash of interests, and an agonizing process of reconciliation and agreement.
But just as criminal defense attorneys are necessary in a healthy society to protect all of our rights, unions are necessary to keep bosses honest and to protect due process and fundamental democracy.
It just so happens that the UAW local The Progressive's employees belong to is also the local that represents legal aide workers all over the United States.
Back when I was a union member, I attended the union's annual convention in Las Vegas with my husband, a public defender.
Labor organizers and public interest lawyers are close kin. When I spoke at that convention I described my family feeling for the attorneys, legal aide staff and social workers and the union we all belonged to. I talked about seeing my husband's clients run up to him on the street and give him a hug, thanking him for representing them. Even if they lost in court, being treated with respect in a system that too often seemed stacked against them was immensely meaningful. Getting their day in court, being heard, feeling that there was some dispassionate justice, that they were not just victims of arbitrary power, meant everything.
The values my husband and his colleagues in the public defenders office represent are exactly the values threatened by Walker's attack on unions: That everyone deserves an advocate, and that powerful interests should have to answer to some sort of organized force that defends the powerless, no matter how outrageous that may seem to the people who are accustomed to calling the shots.
I have a strong affinity for smart-ass lawyers and labor organizers who represent the little guy, as do many journalists. There is a certain outrageous glee I recognize in the eyes of these advocates sticking up for their clients that I used to see shining in the eyes of the late Progressive editor Erwin Knoll, who delighted in standing up to the big shots (most famously in the H-bomb case, when The Progressive made the federal government give up its effort to forbid publication of supposedly classified information on making the atomic bomb). Erwin also kept a copy of Nixon's "enemies list" with his name on it proudly displayed on the wall.
This liberating attitude is the flip side of the freedom the Republicans and their corporate backers are appealing to when they talk about busting unions and cutting taxes and regulation. Theirs is the freedom of the powerful to have even more power.
The antipathy to unions is related to the antipathy to government the Republicans also cultivate.
Taking a short-cut around democratic institutions may be appealing in the short run, but in the long run, it spells disaster. Right-to-work states have lower wages and lousy working conditions.
As in marriage -- a relationship built on good faith and compromise -- unions require us to work harder to understand other people's interests, and what is best for the group. That is sometimes hard. But, in the long run, it makes life better.
Ruth Conniff is editor of The Progressive magazine.