Unite and Conquer

Before I moved south to attend college, it never occurred to me that American public officials would intentionally undermine our public education system. But when I?became a newspaper reporter covering schools in Louisiana I discovered that was precisely what was going on in much of the South.

Separate and inferior schools for blacks as part of the “Jim Crow” system were designed to keep African Americans under control. After the feds forced Southern states to desegregate their public schools in the 1950s and ’60s, the Southern establishment simply set up privately run “Christian” schools for privileged whites. Ever since then the elites have been undermining support for public schools, which were left to the blacks and working-class whites who couldn’t afford the private academies.

As those segregationist “states rights” Southern Democrats took over the Republican Party, the move to defund the public schools and disempower labor unions has spread nationwide.

Not only do declining education standards allow the corporate class to keep taxes low; it also keeps the working class poorly educated and susceptible to right-wing arguments, such as the “supply side” economic theory that lower taxes (and less regulation) will eventually result in more jobs and prosperity, despite 30 years of evidence to the contrary.

Poor education also helps the corporate class convince workers that if they are unable to join a union and get better wages and benefits, they should oppose unions’ ability to negotiate for better wages and benefits for other workers.

That is the background for the supposed budget emergency that forced Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) to rush a bill through the Wisconsin Legislature in February that not only would force many state workers and schoolteachers to pay a greater share of their health insurance and pension costs, but also would take away their rights to collective bargaining and place other restrictions on public employee unions.

The budget emergency was almost entirely manufacured by Republicans who gained power in January. The Madison Capital Times noted that the state’s nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau reported to incoming lawmakers that the state would end the fiscal year on June 30 with a balance of $121.4 million.

“To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January,” the Capital Times noted. “If the Legislature were simply to rescind Walker’s new spending schemes — or delay their implementation until they are offset by fresh revenues — the ‘crisis’ would not exist.”

Because of painful choices made by the previous Democratic Legislature, Wisconsin was in better shape than other states. But Walker came into office with a political agenda to cripple the public employee and schoolteacher unions. And even after union leaders agreed to give in on the demands that their members pay more for their insurance and pensions, Walker refused to compromise on the curtailment of collective bargaining.

Walker is not a reliable source on budget emergencies, having misused them before in his dealings with unions. Rachel Maddow, on her Feb. 21 MSNBC show, noted that, as the Milwaukee County executive last year, Walker fired 27 courthouse security guards and replaced them with guards from Wackenhut, the private, foreign-based non-union security company.

An arbitrator in January ruled that the county did not have a true budget crisis when Walker overruled the county supervisors and replaced the security guards. The arbitrator also ruled county officials failed to give the union representing the security guards an opportunity to make alternative cost-saving proposals before laying them off, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The ruling also said the county had overstated by one-third the estimated $153,000 annual savings from privatizing the courthouse security. Now the county must offer to reinstate the 27 courthouse security guards who were laid off nearly a year ago and give them back pay, which could cost the county $430,000.

Many Republicans see the current economic problems as an opportunity to deliver a blow to public employee unions and public schools as well as to stifle the move to provide universal health care. Republican governors in New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana and other states also are picking fights with public employees. Republicans seek to undermine unions as sources of Democratic political power, as they did a generation ago to trial lawyers, who often represent individuals in lawsuits against corporations — and who largely support Democrats.

The trial lawyers are still a formidable asset to Democrats, but unions are an especially juicy target because they not only can bring money to the game, but also are adept at organizing and getting out the vote.

In 2008, the top five political action groups that spent the most money on elections that year were the US Chamber of Commerce (which sends more than 90% of its money to Republicans), the right-wing Freedom’s Watch PAC, the National Rifle Association and two unions — the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest public employees union, Rachel Maddow noted. In 2010, after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision freed corporations to get more involved in political campaigns, seven of the 10 top spending groups were right-wing. “The only non-conservative groups that cracked the top ten were the public employees union, the SEIU, and the teachers union. That’s it. Unions are the only competition Republicans have in electoral politics. Post-Citizens United, conservatives look at this and they smell blood,” Maddow said.

In Texas, public employees don’t have any real collective bargaining rights, but Republicans won’t pass up a chance to kick them anyway, and public education is ripe for gutting, as legislators look for ways to make up a two-year general deficit projected at more than $27 billion, or one-fourth of its total. Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders are refusing to tap the state’s $9.4 billion “rainy day” fund to help make up the deficit. Instead, Senate budget writers have proposed a $9.3 billion cut in public school appropriations while House budget writers would slash $10 billion. Tax increases have been ruled out, of course.

Looking at that sort of damage, local school officials are being forced to cut more than 100,000 school teachers and support personnel statewide. But those cuts also would reduce the state’s share of public education costs below 50% of the total funding for public schools, raising questions of whether the state is fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide for the state’s public schools.

As the computer wonks say, crippling unions and public schools and making workers pay more for their health care is not a bug; it’s a feature of modern-day conservatism that seeks to return us to the days of the Gilded Age in the late 19th century, when working people were at the mercy of the giant corporate Trusts that controlled industry and the government. It took a movement that started with the Populists in the 1890s, the Progressives in the 1900s and the New Dealers in the 1930s to bring the corporatists to heel.

The rise of unions and the investment in education after World War II — when our nation’s debt as a percentage of the gross national product was much higher than it is today — helped create unprecedented middle-class prosperity in the United States for 50 years. But the corporatists never gave up and now they’re on the ascendancy again with their old plan to divide and conquer and reduce the middle class to peonage.

Don’t hate the unions and schoolteachers because they insisted on free health care and a good pension for their members. Insist on free health care and a good pension for yourself! — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2011


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