Whether it’s Athens, Wisconsin, or Athens, Greece, it’s the same old story: “I don’t want my son to go to school and have 35 people in his kindergarten class.” These words could have come from a parent in the Greek capital concerned about the PASOK government’s plans to merge schools and reduce education spending as part of its austerity measures. In fact, they were spoken by a father from another Athens, the community of 1,000 or so people in the American state of Wisconsin.
Tony Schultz expressed his fears to The Associated Press earlier this month as thousands of Wisconsinites stepped up protests against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s drastic budget cuts, which include $900 million being slashed from funding for schools, in an effort to tackle a deficit expected to grow to $3.6 billion within two years. Like their Greek counterparts, civil servants in Wisconsin are also having their salaries cut. The similarities do not end there. As in Greece, many voters in Wisconsin feel Walker’s measures have been rammed through the legislature with little respect for transparency or the democratic process.
However, Walker’s reforms have mostly stoked public reaction — the largest protests the state has seen since the Vietnam War — because they seek to prevent public sector unions from negotiating collective contracts. A few months ago, the Greek government, acting on orders from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, passed legislation allowing private companies to ignore collective contracts and negotiate individual deals with their employees. They are two sides of the same coin and whichever way you flip it, it confirms that unions are becoming a devalued currency at the very time they are needed most.
The developments in Wisconsin are significant firstly because they point the way labor relations are heading throughout the developed world. Wisconsin was the first US state to introduce workers’ compensation in 1911, unemployment insurance in 1932 and collective bargaining for civil servants in 1959. It was considered so forward-thinking that Theodore Roosevelt called it a “laboratory of democracy.” Walker has now donned the lab coat and is mixing a very dangerous concoction. “What we are doing here, I think, is progressive,” he told the AP with a lack of conviction unbecoming of someone purporting to be a great experimenter. “It’s reform that leads the country and we’re showing there’s a better way by sharing in that sacrifice with all of us in government.”
Workers have heard the “We’re all in this together” argument — or in Greece’s case the “We all pocketed the money together” argument courtesy of Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos — with increasing frequency lately and it is starting to ring hollow. Placing the burden of the current crisis on the work force will simply not wash. As British newspaper the Guardian wrote in a recent editorial, “Whereas voters worried about unions’ role in pushing up prices in the 1970s, labor can scarcely be painted as the villain of the 21st century piece.”
Wisconsin has the potential to be the watershed moment in uncovering and ending the magic trick that has seen political leaders place blame on labor with one hand and then whip away workers’ rights with the other. The size of the protests in the US state — at times the crowd in front of the Capitol has numbered more than 100,000 people despite the freezing weather — and the persistence of the demonstrators has suggested a new unity and vibrancy in the beleaguered union movement.
“Frankly, most protests the past few decades, while led by well-intentioned organizers, have been tedious,” writes Jeffrey Sommers, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “We turn out for good causes but would rather be somewhere else and we have secretly (and sometimes openly) doubted the effectiveness of the whole exercise. Not this time.” The Wisconsin protests have brought together people as disparate as nursery school teachers, farmers, students and firefighters. They have succeeded where unions have failed for so many years in convincing workers that they have common interests and that these are best served by standing side by side. Walker wanted to breed togetherness but got a very different kind from the one he bargained for. “There were no spokespersons for this movement,” adds Sommers. “People organized themselves, made decisions on the ground, and acted on them.”
This genuine and passionate reaction to what many perceive to be an injustice has given hope that the labor movement in the US is set for a grassroots revival. The pro-labor advocacy group Working America reported last week that it had gained 20,000 new members in a month. But there is much lost ground to be covered. After peaking at 25 percent in the late 1950s, union membership as a proportion of the total work force in the US has fallen to 11.9 percent. The disparity between union participation in the public and private sectors is huge. More than 36 percent of civil servants are unionized but only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are part of organized labor. A wedge has been driven between workers. The diminishing rights of private sector workers, who are increasingly left to fend for themselves, mean they feel their public sector counterparts have undue privileges.
It is a feeling that many Greeks will be familiar with. Few of Greece’s private sector workers were unduly concerned last year when civil servants had their wages and benefits slashed. The general feeling was that the public sector workers had been getting away with handsome pay for little end-product for too long. This was a symptom of the failure of unionism in Greece. The country’s two largest unions ADEDY, representing civil servants, and GSEE, representing 157 private and broader public sector groups, forgot they had a sacred mission to protect all, not just some, workers’ interests. They browbeat governments into sacrificing attempts at reform and making concessions to civil servants while leaving private sector workers to wilt in the shadows like the red rose that represents the labor movement worldwide. Sure, the private sector employees benefited from collective labor contracts that set minimum wages and benefits but whatever they gained from this was lost on higher taxes and social security contributions to keep the civil servants in the state of comfort they had become accustomed to.
Unionists should have been in the front line of preventing wide discrepancies in the treatment of workers; instead they acted as fifth columnists, positively encouraging the creation of unfair privileges. The unions should have been the first to ensure that governments paid public sector workers a decent salary for a good day’s work rather than buy their compliance with a wide array of payments for absurd things such as turning up to work on time and washing their hands. They should also have had the courage to single out those who were paid generous amounts of public money for doing very little or nothing at all.
They betrayed their cause further by blurring the clear line of distinction that must exist between organized labor and political parties. While unions have traditionally had links to the parties of the left, Greek labor groups perverted the process. They became mouthpieces for political parties of all sides rather than true defenders of the working and middle classes. They allowed themselves to be controlled by the most populist factions of these parties. The fact that the last four presidents of GSEE have gone on to become PASOK MPs should stand as a symbol of shame to Greece’s utterly compromised unionists.
The result is that although GSEE and ADEDY represent more than half of the Greek work force of 4.4 million people, only a small percentage of those workers are active members of the unions, producing representation figures similar to those in the USA, which would have been unthinkable not so long ago. Decisions are taken by a tiny minority of executive members and ballots on key issues such as whether to strike are hardly ever held. Greece’s unions have managed to march themselves into irrelevance.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the economic crisis should find them unprepared and neutered. Beyond the odd public transport or general strike, the unions have hardly registered on the political landscape over the last few months. No longer able to squeeze politicians for greater benefits for their public sector members, they are at a loss over what to do. Yet this is the time that their members need them most. As jobs vanish by the day and business owners turn the screw on their employees, workers need someone in their corner. As insecurity grips the work force and politicians strip away labor rights, workers need a champion. Every society needs equilibrium and just as the years when the unions pursued narrow interests proved harmful for Greece, so the tipping of the balance totally in favor of the employers will bring new disharmony.
This is the time to remember some of the things that unionism at its best has provided for workers, be they in Athens, Wisconsin, or Athens, Greece: the five-day week, guaranteed holidays, a minimum wage, unemployment benefits and the right to negotiate wages in unison with colleagues. Like all things we take for granted, we don’t realize their true value until we start to lose them. Now that many of the rights born from years of negotiations and effort are being torn down, labor groups must find a way to rebuild decency and solidarity. Even in a dark hour for its historic labor movement, Wisconsin has provided a ray of hope that people can pull together to protect principles which make our society fairer. The burden now falls on others, including those in Greece, to realize the value of joining hands, of standing in union.