Wisconsin and Ohio Protestors: We Want Freedom of Choice, Not Money

 Wisconsin and Ohio Protestors: We Want Freedom of Choice, Not Money

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Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan said it right the first time on Feb. 17: “It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison these days.” He was viewing the 70,000 protestors demonstrating against Gov. Scott Walker’s dogged attempts to deny public unions the right to collective bargaining. Many thought Ryan’s remark unfortunate, since it seemed to compare Gov. Walker to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, effectively deposed by the street demonstrators of Egypt.

But Governor Walker certainly hit a nerve with the American public that is no less jolting than that which called Mubarak’s autocratic rule into question. Walker may not have killed people, but his dictates are, in an American context, no less autocratic or unthinkable than the excesses of Mubarak.
The Wisconsin demonstrators, and those following their lead in Ohio protests against a bill that would similarly deprive public employees bargaining rights, showed that they were unwilling to give up an essential element of American culture -- the ability to shape their own destiny through negotiated choice.

Freedom of choice is one of the most sacred of American cultural values. It lies at the core of our commercial, civic and social lives. Any imposed limitation on choice is eventually doomed, as has been shown time and time again throughout American history.

Anti-miscegenation laws eventually fell to the ground, as gay marriage laws are slowly overcoming the forces that would outlaw them. Civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination have been established throughout the land. They have the support of the vast majority of Americans because they protect the freedom to choose whom to marry, where to live and whom to work for.

Collective bargaining is at core mutual freedom of choice. One person can rarely negotiate with a huge industry; hence the group nature of the bargaining. In labor negotiations, both sides present what they are willing to live with in hopes of reaching mutual compromise. In this situation, no party gets entirely what they want, but both sides get some of what they want, and they come to a conclusion when they choose to settle for something that is perhaps not ideal but comes close to being satisfactory. When both sides agree, there can be no blame since the choice to accept or not was always there.

Gov. Walker’s mistake was in trying to eliminate the ability of workers to exercise this fundamental choice. In essence, he is saying that union workers will never get even close to what they want in terms of working conditions or compensation, but his administration, as employer, will always get all of what they want. When one is employed under circumstances where no negotiation of work conditions or compensation is allowed—no choice, effectively—that work is tantamount to slavery. It allows only one choice — to quit. This draconian choice might be acceptable, perhaps, in flush economic times, but it is not an option in times like the present.

The pretext put forward by Gov. Walker for his action was budgetary. However, as numerous analysts have pointed out, Wisconsin’s budgetary woes will not be solved by removing public service union bargaining rights. To make this point clearer, the unions agreed to the financial requests put forward by the Walker administration, alongside its call for the elimination of bargaining rights. But the governor was unrelenting; the money apparently didn’t matter. It was the strength of the unions he was trying to eliminate.

Of course, Gov. Walker is not alone. Republican administrations in a half dozen states are hoping to use the current financial crisis to break the public service unions. When employees lose the right to bargain, what good is the union? Why continue to belong and pay dues?

From the standpoint of the Republican Party, the disappearance of unions removes a financial obstacle to its political ambitions. Unions not only negotiate on behalf of their members; they also work to elect politicians that are sympathetic to workers’ rights. These are most often Democrats. Therefore, to get rid of political challenges, officials like Gov. Walker are happy to destroy the right to negotiated choice in the service of partisan political advantage.

In other nations, the exercise of choice might not enjoy the sacred quality it has in the United States. It is now clear that this fundamental right is something that thousands are willing to make sacrifices to protect. Gov. Walker and Republican legislators are learning this the hard way.

William O. Beeman is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota.