Column: Making a living gets more complicated
In Wisconsin, what may get lost in the confrontation is that the core issue is something liberals and conservatives should be agreeing on. When it is played out in confrontation there is danger; real danger of violence, and danger of an important issue becoming a polarized shouting match while both sides sink economically.
If you haven't been following it, the governor of Wisconsin wants to gut the public employees union, and protesters want to stop it. At its core it's about how wage earners will fare as our economy changes. In a way it is unfortunate; this stand against losing ground could have happened over a more broadly supported issue with a stronger position.
My list of the pertinent facts on this takes up another column, so the Courier has made them available online. If you want to comment online, read that extended information first; I may have already addressed your point. Visit the link below.
What caught people's attention in Wisconsin is a combination of them feeling their economic well-being slipping away, and the governor asking for more than just some pain from the workers (they've already agreed to the cuts); he wants to end their very ability to have any say in their own work conditions.
Set aside for the moment that this is about public employees. After all, there are few people who would change their opinion on this issue solely if it was about a private-sector union. This is about working people getting paid enough to earn a living. Some would say that the "rust belt" is just that because unions demanded wages too high. They would be half right. I'm sure the rust belt could have a booming industrial economy if the workers would just take outsource-level wages and conditions. But what good is that?
It does us no good to have people working if they don't earn a living, if they don't have enough to cover their part of health expenses. If they don't have enough to save toward retirement. Enough to contribute to their children's college education so they are self-sustaining, productive members of society. Enough to survive the bumps in life's road without falling completely off track and needing help getting going again. Enough to not have to go back and live with their parents when they should be well on their own. Enough to absorb some of the burden that otherwise falls on society; the aging parent who needs some late-life help, the family member who needs psychiatric support so they don't end up on the street.
In short, if they don't earn enough to not be a burden on society, then they're not earning a living. Otherwise we're just adding to that same dependent class we want to reduce. We're not rewarding the very thing we want people to do, work.
And, to put it bluntly, it's stupid. A nation of people living on the edge is a fragile, volatile, easily shaken, not secure, un-influential, dependent, weak nation.
We can argue about all sorts of details, unions or not, etc., but it is inarguable that we are on this downhill slide. Fighting amongst ourselves while the ship goes down is as foolish as it sounds.
Tea partiers and libertarian-leaners are correct that we should have as little government as makes sense, as little tax and as little interference in the free-market as makes sense, that reducing government expense and size where advisable will help the economy. The point is not to disagree with that, the point is, that is not enough.
We see that just letting things play out leads to out-sourcing to an abusive extent, to manipulations of markets by powerful players, to an unhealthy and unwise degree of wealth-disparity that threatens our economic stability and our democratic strength, to the well being of wage-earners being subject to everything from a rise in the number of retirees to global economic trends. Now, and for the foreseeable future, those trends push people who just want to work to that on-the-edge position.
Unless ... unless we shape our government policies, our economic policies, our state budgets and our national budget, to focus on one priority; every step should be considered in light of the question "how does this affect people who just want to work"? That's what people don't see in the plans of the governor in Wisconsin. They may not have picked the perfect battle, but that's the burr under their saddle that's bothering them, and rightly so. Policies that make a working life pay a living are what should be the focus of everyone in this economy, across the spectrum.
Tom Cantlon is a longtime local resident, business owner and writer. Contact him at TomCantlon@TomCantlon.com.