The unions, public higher education, and American democracy are all facing mortal threats from the same enemy.
Of the three, only the unions, so far, have woken up to the fact that the cattle car they’re being herded onto isn’t taking them to a placid and safe, if slightly austere, exile on dusty rangeland somewhere. And they’re understandably putting up a fight for their lives.
Unions and collective bargaining — and, I would argue, democratic principles in general — are currently under assault nationwide for exactly one reason, and it has nothing to do with budgets. In Wisconsin, as elsewhere, the budget is just the convenient pretext for eviscerating the single most important remaining source of organized opposition to the GOP agenda, for which Scott Walker is currently the most visible spear-carrier.
You don’t have be a supporter, per se, of collective bargaining rights to understand that this explanation is the only one that actually fits the current facts, given the very minor role that union-negotiated benefits play in the overall state budget.
And what is Walker’s agenda? If you’re still confused about that, you should definitely take a moment to read this article by the London-based Guardian, which ironically — but not surprisingly — has provided consistently better analysis of what’s really happening in Wisconsin than our Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal. Then read this article from Politico.
So, with the stroke of a pen last week, Scott Walker signed a bill that effectively abolished the ability of unions to continue existing in any form that could help resist the further corporatization of Wisconsin.
It is a measure of how urgent this step was as a way of “softening up” the opposition to the rest of his agenda — akin to the aerial bombardment before the invasion — that Walker and his rubber-stamp legislature were willing to openly flout the law in ramming the bill forward, taking the not inconsiderable risk of a setback in the courts.
Ignoring for a moment the question of whether such a legal setback will mean more than a temporary delay, what is Walker’s next step?
After unions, where do you find the next-most concentrated (and effective) opposition to Scott Walker’s agenda? To pose the question another way, if you took all union protestors out of the Capitol during the early weeks of March, who would constitute the large majority of those remaining?
That’s right, the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With or without unions (remember that the faculty are not unionized and are nevertheless largely anti-Walker), the highly educated, informed, and engaged campus community will continue to be a major thorn in Walker’s side right here in the state’s capitol.
It has already been argued by several contributors to Sifting and Winnowing that Scott Walker is not only not a supporter of public higher education but is almost certainly actively hostile to it. Indeed, the general attitude of Walker’s corporate backers toward the liberal arts and higher education is, I believe, well-captured in this famous (and sometimes profane) riff on “The American Dream” by the late George Carlin.
It seems extremely likely that Walker will use whatever leverage he gains over the University of Wisconsin-Madison to eviscerate the very qualities that make the university such a focal point of resistance to the corporate agenda. These include virtually all of the qualities that distinguish UW-Madison from either a community college or a for-profit private university.
Whatever theoretical benefits might accrue to the University of Wiscosin-Madison by way of the Public Authority so “generously” offered by the Governor in his budget bill, we must beware of allowing ourselves to be herded meekly into the cattle car. Once the door slams behind us, we may have the “flexibility” to do whatever we want inside that car, but we will have less control than we think over its ultimate destination.