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Wis. governor undid centuries of hard work

The events of the past few weeks concerning collective bargaining for public employees in

Wisconsin has given me cause to examine the background to this conflict. As someone who has studied the period of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, and played a role in collective bargaining, I have some thoughts I think are worthy of consideration.

 

In the 17th century science began to come into its own. For example, the theories presented by Nicholas Copernicus in the early 16th century argued that our universe was heliocentric rather than earth-centered. By the time Isaac Newton died in 1725, not only was the heliocentric theory accepted, it was then believed that our universe was governed by inexorable natural laws. Now enter the social scientists in the 18th century who argued that if there are laws governing the operation of the universe, there must be other natural laws that would demonstrate how we should live together in society.

 

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 The 18th century was known as "The Age of Reason" (rationalism) and the race was on to discover the natural laws the social scientists believed existed. Virtually every human social institution was examined. John Locke said that man has a natural right to "life, liberty and property" (Jefferson modified the last part of that to say "pursuit of happiness"). In his 1776 "Wealth of Nations," Adam Smith concluded that there were natural laws in economics such as "supply and demand" and "competition." If these natural laws were allowed to work unimpeded, the best economic system would prevail. Smith was to laissez-faire economics what Karl Marx was to communism.

 

The mid-18th century also was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the movement of people off the farms and into the factories, where conditions were horrendous. The rising entrepreneurial class, believing that they were operating under the influence of natural law, told themselves they couldn’t afford the luxury of compassion for the working classes. If they couldn’t extract every ounce of work from the people in their factories, they would not be able to compete and would lose their factories. Long hours of labor were involved with meager wages and no benefits. There were no vacations, sick leave, pensions, or anything else.

 

The ideas of Adam Smith were followed by economists such as Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo who argued that poverty was a "natural" condition for the working classes. When the British workers slowly began to join together in combinations (unions), the Parliament — now under the control of the rising bourgeoisie and the aristocracy — declared them illegal. It took a great many years for the workers to obtain the right to bargain and better their conditions. This first began in Britain, but broadened in scope to include virtually all of Western Europe and eventually the United States. And not only union employees benefitted; non-union workers benefitted as well.

 

While the struggle for the right to bargain collectively was going on, the pain and human suffering that this entailed is beyond calculation. That one man in Wisconsin could now pass legislation terminating collective bargaining for public employees is beyond my comprehension. Of course, we are now facing a global economy and outsourcing. The entrepreneur can open a plant in a Third World country with less overhead and pay the workers a fraction of what they would be paying in the United States. Competition is still the key and the CEO of a company has to consider his stockholders and profits. I understand that, and I do believe in the capitalist system, but what we are witnessing now in many instances is capitalism without a conscience.

 

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There is another element that needs airing. Union members usually have been Democrats and the unions support candidates they believe will advance the causes of the working classes. I believe Governor Walker’s efforts to break collective bargaining for public employees is union busting in order to weaken the influence of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin and perhaps beyond.

 

Over the years there may have been abuses in unionism. However, as a five-time elected president of our faculty association and two-time state negotiator for all of the state community colleges in Minnesota, I know firsthand the benefits of collective bargaining.

What I learned at the local and state level is that collective bargaining need not be a win-lose proposition. Each side had to learn about the concerns, restraints and finances of the other. Compromises had to be made and solutions sought. The system worked. To abolish that process for public employees now would potentially turn the clock back one hundred years and the quality of life so hard fought for could be significantly damaged.

 

 

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