The morning’s news brought yet another report of a California official telling public employees that they need to give up a chunk of their pensions. This one was the mayor of San Jose. It’s a statewide problem, as cities, counties, and the state find that their pension funds don’t have enough in them to pay out the contracted amount. As the wife of a state worker and a user of state services, I’m really tired of the public-employee bashing. (I know the pension system needs to be reformed. But you can’t change the terms retroactively. We signed the contract and then we gambled with the pension funds, and lost. In a trustee, that would be called irresponsible stewardship, if not malfeasance; for the citizens of a state, it means suck it up and pay what we promised.)
So when I heard that Wisconsin’s governor was trying to eradicate collective bargaining for Wisconsin state employees on everything but wages, and limit their raises to inflation–work for Wisconsin and tread water!–I was depressed but not surprised. So cynical have I become about the attitude most people take toward public employees that what surprised me was the fervor of the protests. Actually, I didn’t hope for any protests except a few squawks from the usual suspects. Instead, the last I heard, the Democratic state senators refused to show up for the vote, denying a quorum. Twenty-five thousand people turned out at the Capitol, and it’s cold in Madison. (Yeah, a temperature in the 40s isn’t cold compared to what they’ve been going through this winter. But try standing outside in it all day.) Teachers are walking out and schools have been shut for lack of staff. The president spoke up on behalf of public employees. People seem to actually care.
One of the great regrets of my life is that I will probably never join a union. Despite their flaws, they are so eminently sensible to me, their history so much a part of the struggle for justice in this country, that I’d like to have my very own union card (I could show it to the National Guard if necessary). Lacking one, I sing “Union Maid” to my daughter, tell anyone in a purple SEIU hat “That’s our family’s union!,” honor picket lines, read Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, proudly claim the identity of worker, and watch events like those in Wisconsin with hope that the newly inaugurated GOP governors around the country are watching too. Maybe, like the leaders of Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, etc. this week, they’re wondering if they can quite get away with what they’d planned.