The bloodiest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere essentially happened by mistake in the summer of 1863, when Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia — maneuvering blind into southern Pennsylvania — blundered into elements of George Meade's Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. Once engaged, neither commander could back away.
In political terms, something similar seems to be happening in Wisconsin, where newly installed Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to roll back public employees' pensions and benefits, while stripping most of them of their right to collective bargaining, is beginning to look like a national struggle over the future of organized labor itself.
There really are two issues here: One has to do with unionized public employees' pensions. In recent years, shrewd bargaining by union leaders and the relative weakness of overly sympathetic government representatives on the other side of the table have, in many places, produced pension systems that are unsustainably generous unless they're reformed. Certainly, that's the case in California and Los Angeles.
The other issue has to do with the future of collective bargaining itself, because it's becoming increasingly clear that the budgetary "crisis" that has been manufactured in Wisconsin is being used as cover for a wholesale assault on the rights of American working people.
Real war famously creates its own fog of uncertainty; political conflict manufactures obscurity as camouflage for self-interest. That's the case in Wisconsin, where Walker came to office with an anti-union agenda, even though he inherited a state government whose finances — far from being in crisis — were in relatively good shape for the times. However, along with GOP majorities in Madison's Legislature, he quickly enacted a series of tax breaks that eliminated what would have been a budget surplus and set in motion a confrontation with public employee unions. Even so, the unions have agreed to givebacks, though they're unwilling to abandon the right to collective bargaining they've enjoyed for half a century.
That's not good enough for Walker, or — as we now learn — the shadowy conservative manipulators who have supported and encouraged him. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, one of the new governor's biggest campaign contributors is Wichita, Kan.-based Koch Industries, the conglomerate privately held by the secretive billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, who are implacable ideological foes of organized labor. In fact, as Tim Phillips, head of Americans for Prosperity, a group created and funded by the Koch brothers to the tune of $40 million last year, told the paper, "even before the new governor was sworn in last month, executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown."
"We thought it was important to do," Phillips said, adding that the organization also is working with officials in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania to encourage similar confrontations. Meanwhile, a veritable who's who of prospective Republican presidential candidates has weighed in against the Wisconsin unions, while President Obama has spoken on the public employees' behalf and the AFL-CIO has begun a polling and television ad campaign supporting them.
You'd think from the sudden intensity of this battle that organized labor was a major force in the American economy, but nothing could be further from the truth. In 1945, about 36% of non-agricultural U.S. workers were represented by a union. As of 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 7% of privately employed workers were unionized and about 36% of public employees. Overall, a mere 12.4% of all American workers belonged to a union in 2010.
Moreover, even though the unionization of public employees has masked organized labor's long decline, 4 out of 10 public employees in America already are legally prohibited from collective bargaining. Anti-labor legislation has been instrumental in the decline of private-sector unions since passage of the Taft-Hartley Act following World War II. Many economists would point to that long decline as a major cause of the continuing erosion of middle-class wages and salaries and the insecurity engendered by employers' abandonment of conventional pensions and their now-routine recourse to layoffs as a way to shore up balance sheets.
For more than a century, democracies with modern economies have recognized the rights of workers to organize and to bargain collectively for wages, working conditions and benefits. Those rights are fundamental to a decent society. The temporary problem with some public employee pension schemes ought not to be used to strip working men and women of that basic protection.