At a recent protest against Governor Scott Walker’s so-called Budget Repair Bill in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a 61 year-old woman waving an American flag told me her grandfather came from Russia to work in Oshkosh’s now-defunct Paine Lumber Mill.
“With no union then,” she said, “if you lost your arm in a saw, you were out-of-luck, laid-off the next day, and not getting anything from the company.”
She went on to tell me that she had never protested publicly before in her life.
“I never saw the reason to,” she said, “but now, this is too big to not stand up against.”
Big, indeed, because unions guarantee the ability of individuals to assume a voice more powerful than their own. Without them, we are left to advocate alone for our interests against often faceless employers that increasingly span continents. Unions—and social movements like the one Wisconsin has spawned in the past month—are the few collective voices left in the United States loud enough to resist corporate executives and politicians manipulating the market to their own advantage. This explains why many politicians all over the country aim to weaken them.
In Wisconsin, Governor Walker’s administration has also simultaneously tried to restrict access to public spaces such as Wisconsin’s Capitol building. The ubiquitous chant of “Whose house? Our house!” at Madison protests is not just sloganeering. It is rooted in the concrete way the Capitol symbolizes shared experiences of public services that benefit all citizens, not just those who can pay for them.
If free market ideologues have their way, however, de-regulation and privatization will allow corporations to colonize public institutions. In Wisconsin and Michigan, for example, legislation is being considered that would permit corporations to run multiple schools and municipalities. Such laws are promoted in the name of a very limited definition of freedom that privileges the unrestricted liberty to make profit over the liberty for citizens to participate in community decisions.
Corporations, because they are only responsible to the profit motivations of stockholders, have little incentive to be democratic or to self-regulate: to provide safe working conditions, to pay their workers a living wage, or ensure their activities don’t spoil the ecosystems that all life depends on. American history makes this clear. Safer working conditions, fairer wages, and more ecologically responsible business practices have arisen when unions and social movements forced companies and the government to grant and enforce these changes.
The deregulated, union-less economies that Scott Walker and his cronies desire exist in so-called developing countries all over the world. I have lived in Central America and witnessed the misery that the lack of labor and environmental regulations creates. A sewage-ridden lake you can smell from half-a-mile away. A family living on rice and beans in a dirt-floored, sheet-metal shack because the Coca-Cola bottling plant only pays the father $100 a month for full-time work. Banana plantation workers with deformed babies because Dole forced them to use a pesticide known to cause birth defects with no protective gear.
All Americans can agree that this is not the kind of society we want. Unfortunately, this agreement gets often overlooked in the controversy over unions, though unions are one of the few means we have left to collectively prevent a spiral back toward such a future.
Supporters of anti-union laws and de-regulation assert that we no longer need to be concerned about the abuses of people and land that were commonplace in the 19th and 20th centuries. We have laws that prohibit such abuses, they say. Yet many of these same people are currently proposing the curtailing of the Environmental Protection Agency and the ability of unions to negotiate their working conditions. Furthermore, these advocates for de-regulation overlook the many recent examples of corporate exploitation in the U.S.: the BP oil disaster, the economic crisis-profiteering of Goldman Sachs, Walmart’s failure to pay a living wage. The list could go on and on. Not because corporations are evil, but because they simply fulfill their primary purpose to improve their bottom lines. Therefore, they require public oversight and a strong collective voice for people and places affected by corporate activities.
Unions provide this voice, and perhaps just as importantly, they offer a bulwark of communal purpose in an otherwise relentlessly fracturing culture. Where else but a rally defending union rights can you see social workers and police, snowplow drivers and professors, shouting the word “We”? But the Main Street Movement that emerged in Wisconsin has also become about much more than unions. It has reasserted the importance of the public sphere in a democracy and citizen participation beyond voting.
In recent weeks, opponents of the Main Street Movement ranging from Wisconsin U.S. Senator Ron Johnson to Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have dismissed the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors in Wisconsin as a “mob.” Johnson and Fitzgerald join past opponents of the five-day work week, minimum wage, women’s suffrage, and civil rights on the wrong side of history. All of these goals were accomplished by nonviolent protesters claiming rights now considered central to American life.
The word “mob” derives from the Latin phrase mobile vulgus, “changeable common people.” When politicians like Johnson and Fitzgerald utter “mob” to scare middle-class Americans from joining together, they epitomize the word’s condescending, classist roots. Now, as always, such mobster union-busters and de-regulators use the deep-rooted tension in American life between individualism and community to pit worker against worker. They blackmail us by threatening to take our jobs if we don’t give up our rights.
But the spreading resistance shows gangster government isn’t working. First in Wisconsin, then Ohio, Indiana, and onward, citizen togetherness is gathering steam, as it did during the Progressive movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement. Which mob am I in? Count me with the 61 year-old, flag-waving granddaughter of an Oshkosh mill worker, shouting to keep a voice at all.