The elephant in the room: class politics

I’ve been following the union protests in Wisconsin for a few days now with a fairly high level of interest. Public-sector workers protesting, Democratic senators strategically leaving town to deny the state senate a quorum, Gov. Scott Walker standing firm and defending his bill. Brilliant political theater to follow. If you, too, are interested in what’s going on, I recommend Mother Jones’ coverage. If you’re more interested in live bits and pieces, Mother Jones’ man on the ground, Andy Kroll, has been keeping an impressive Twitter feed with updates, photos and news as it happens.

What makes these protests so fascinating to me is that they illustrate how classism in the U.S. has apparently reached the brink — whatever happens in Wisconsin could very well shape labor relations in other states for years to come. It also shows, to me, that issues of class and economic empowerment are still a critical cornerstone of American political life.

I typically divide most American political arguments into three main subsets: social, identity and economic. Examples of the first would be abortion, gay marriage and the role of religion in public life. Examples of the second would be feminism, race relations and to some extent citizenship and immigration. What’s happening now in Wisconsin is an example of the economic subset coming into focus. But here’s the rub — so much focus is on the first two subsets that the third has largely been — until now — ignored. This is interesting because nearly everything argued about in the first two subsets still comes down to socioeconomic factors in the end.

Abortion rights — Should taxes fund abortion? Would outlawing abortion keep a specific demographic from obtaining one elsewhere? How does abortion affect social services?

Religion — Should religious groups be tax exempt? Should groups that make political donations or endorsements lose tax-exempt status? Should faith-based initiatives receive tax dollars?

Feminism  — So much of this has to do with female workers’ rights and pay, and the security of economic empowerment.

I would go so far as to argue that using wedge issues from the first two subsets actually obscures the very real problems in the third. In a country like the U.S. that prides itself on the “up from the bootstraps” idea of self-improvement and equal opportunity, might it be a dirty little secret that the deck is actually stacked, and that we do have problems with classism? We have been told to trust the market, but as we’ve seen, the market can be corrupted. What’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t just about pensions and dues. It’s about the rights of labor to control its own destiny and speak through its members. Organized labor is so fundamental to economic justice that it’s actually listed as a fundamental human right in Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We have also been told that one person equals one vote in our democratic republic, and yet time and again, on both sides of the political spectrum, we see that every politician, every committee, every issue, has a price. When an electoral system such as ours effectively prohibits anyone from running for office successfully without toeing a soft-money line, this is what happens. We have a cycle of political paybacks in America from which we may never escape without drastic campaign reform, something I doubt anyone has the spine to seriously suggest and which would never pass even if someone did. How interesting that public-sector workers in Wisconsin are accused of feeding at the public trough when so many public-sector politicians are clearly feeding at the private one.

Many of my generation and perhaps even the one previously have little concept as to what unions have achieved. Reasonable working hours, weekends, child labor laws (and giving children the time and incentive to become educated), safety standards, recourse to unjustified termination, pensions, retirement — all of these things that we take for granted came about because, at one time, organized labor fought for them. They are a buffer between workers and the tendency of corporations to run unchecked if allowed to do so. They are why we have a middle class in this country. This does not mean that America must choose between corporatism and communism, only that a middle ground must be found that allows both capitalism and the workers that drive it to thrive.

However people feel about deficits and taxation and whatnot, I hope they can appreciate what’s happening in the Badger state and realize that if public-sector labor can be gutted, no one is safe. Even non-union workers have unions to thank for much of what they take for granted; some in this country would see those benefits stripped in the name of profits. Wisconsin is a frontier battleground, and it must stop there.