I was reading about the protests in Wisconsin, and I saw this photo. The gentleman on the left is a member of Iron Workers Local 8. That number made me stop and think. That number has meaning to me, because I know the history of labor unions in this country. It means nothing to conservative pundits or the vapid giggling morons who comprise the brain trust on Morning Joe, and it means nothing to the Governor of Wisconsin, but it resonates with me.
Eight is a low number. It’s a low number because that local was chartered a long time ago.
How long? This long:
Our official celebration was based on the charter issued by the International Association of Bridge and Structural Ironworkers of America on February 1, 1901 to the Housesmiths and Bridgemen’s Local Union No. 8 of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although the words “Housesmith’s and Bridgemen’s” were dropped long ago, that charter still hangs proudly in the board room of Local 8’s office in Milwaukee.
If you go to that local’s site, you’ll read this:
“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could not have existed had not labor first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”
This is the dictionary definition of collective bargaining:
Method whereby representatives of employees (unions) and employers negotiate the conditions of employment, normally resulting in a written contract setting forth the wages, hours, and other conditions to be observed for a stipulated period (e.g., 3 years). The term also applies to union-management dealings during the term of the agreement.
The phrase collective bargaining has a much larger meaning than “benefits”, and to watch Scott Walker with his vacant ideologue’s stare reciting bullet points over and over is to realize he has no idea what it means.
It means workers have a seat at the table. It’s a simple idea but it’s incredibly powerful. That’s what they’re defending.
Tens of thousands of people don’t get off their couch and camp out in a capitol building because of a dispute over paying 15% towards health insurance or paying 20%. Conservatives and their media allies would like to convince us they do, they’d like to convince us that this is about budget numbers or contract terms or benefits, but it isn’t.
Scott Walker is threatening to take away something very valuable. He’s telling them two things: your long labor history doesn’t matter, and you haven’t earned a seat at the table. They know better than that.
President Obama used the word “assault” because it’s accurate, within the history and context of labor unions. If you’re a person who is willfully or lazily pig-ignorant of that history, or a person who believes this country began with the election of Ronald Reagan, you’ll miss that, and you’ll start reciting deficit numbers and health insurance co-pays of union members as compared to non-union employees. But if you do that, you’ll be missing the point.
Negotiation is to unions what diplomacy is to nations. It’s what they work like hell at before they fail, and go to war. Union members aren’t proud of their ability to stop working and strike. Any idiot can start a war. A strike means negotiations failed. They’re proud of their ability to negotiate. They’re proud of that fact that they’re sitting in a hard-won seat at the table, and dealing as equals with the other representatives sitting at that table.
Scott Walker wouldn’t sit down with them. He denied them their history and the hard-won agency and dignity that comes with a seat at the table and in doing so threatened something much more valuable than wages or benefits. He refused to use diplomacy; refused to grant them the respect that dealing with them as equals confers, and went right to war. They know that. It’s why they turned out. President Obama chooses words very carefully. He knows it too.