Unity vs. “Divide and Conquer”

By , February 23, 2011

In response to a financial crisis fueled by corporate greed, Republicans now seek to further empower corporations and disenfranchise voters. 

In Wisconsin (the state where I was born and attended elementary school), the new governor and Republican-controlled legislature have launched a vicious attack on public-employee unions.

Entering office with a precariously-balanced budget, Wisconsin’s Republicans immediately enacted huge tax cuts for corporations and wealthy citizens — and then blamed the deficit on unions.

Instead of seeking to negotiate with public employees, Republicans falsely claimed that unions would not accept the salary cuts and increased cost-sharing required to balance the budget, and moved immediately to eliminate collective bargaining for those state employee groups who traditionally backed Democrats (but exempting police and firefighters, who supported Republicans).

When the unions agreed to all the requested salary cuts and increased cost-sharing, the Republicans refused to back down.

This isn’t about state budgets; it’s about corporate greed. These Republicans don’t intend to balance the budget; they want to suppress unions so that their corporate backers can have more influence and grab more profits.

Once they eliminate collective bargaining, they’ll continue to impose more and more draconian cuts on teachers and other public employees, while granting more and more tax breaks and political advantages to corporations and their largest stockholders.

Paul Krugman (winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics) explained the issue well in last Sunday’s New York Times:

“What [Gov.] Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side. * * *

“There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.”


Yes, of course there’s a financial crisis.  Yes, of course states must adopt huge budget cuts.

And yes, eliminating unions will make it easier to force public employees to shoulder more of the burden.

But eliminating teacher unions will also undermine our nation’s ability to actually improve public education. Eliminating public-employee unions will undermine the power of “ordinary folks” to participate in public dialogues, and to participate effectively in elections.

Without unions:

  • Teachers will be intimidated even more than today;
  • Teachers will be forced to adopt and implement every absurd “school reform” measure, including those that impair students’ learning;
  • Teachers will be forced to focus even more on “standardized testing,” teaching only content that is “testable and frequently tested”; critical-thinking skills, writing, and other material that’s difficult or expensive to test will be excluded;
  • Teachers will be forced to accept “merit pay” structures that penalize teachers for collaborating and sharing successful teaching strategies, and which also penalize teachers who wish to work in low-income schools, or with disabled students;
  • Teachers who object or speak out about abuses will be fired and blacklisted (even more than is already happening; and
  • Competent teachers will flee the profession, even as corporate incentives draw incompetent teachers into schools, to fuel the drive toward privatization of schools.

As usual, Republicans respond to a crisis that demands unity and compromise, by escalating their efforts to divide communities, exploit “wedge issues,” and undermine democracy.

My elementary-school teachers (in Port Washington, Wisconsin) infused me with a life-long love of learning. I also believe that my Wisconsin education planted the seeds that led me to value public participation and service to the community, which are critical to a working democratic society.  The current corporate-funded movement seeks to destroy all of this.

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