Monday, February 21, 2011

Which Side are you On?

In the last week or so, I've been getting email and Facebook solicitations to support the demonstrators in Madison Wisconsin. Which side are you on, these emails ask, labor or the tea party? My answer has been, I'm siding with children.

I suppose it won't come as any surprise to St. Cloud folks that I grew up with liberal views. My grandfather was a steel executive in later life, and he and my mother split deeply over her strong pro-labor views. My mom was a rebellious young woman, and back during the depression, she sided against her father on the side of the AFL and the CIO. My mother taught me about what working people lived like in the 1930's when she was young. I heard stories about labor organizers and the risks that they took to raise the living standards of American workers. I was raised by my mother to believe that without the labor movement, working people would have been stuck with 6 day workweeks, poverty wages, and an arbitrary employment environment that left them helpless before management, and I still believe that to this day.

My mother told me about company towns, where American workers lived in company owned houses, bought their provisions from company owned stores, and stayed mired constantly in debt to their company creditor, so that they were never truly economically free.

When I was a college student, I hitchhiked through the eastern Kentucky coal country to witness what America could be like, without the right to organize. I spent my vacation with families in Hazard Kentucky whose breadwinners risked health and safety down in the mines, doing back-breaking work, but who could never work their way out of poverty. In Hazard, in a union hall, I learned how to sing "Amazing Grace" with that sliding Appalachian sound. The faces of those hard-working poor miners, and their families, remain in my mind to this day. If you don't understand what the American labor movement was about, you need to have look at the documentary "Harlan County." (click to view)

Company Town, Harlan Kentucky......
There's an old labor song titled "which side are you on" that was written by a union organizer's wife in Harlan County Kentucky, to give spirit to mine workers in what was then a company owned police state called "Bloody Harlan county." A lot of my Facebook friends are upper middle class professionals, who grew up liberal like me, and they think that I have, well, gone politically south on them because I won't stand up and be counted as 100 percent on either side of the battle going on in Wisconsin right now. They see this issue as the same as the issues facing poverty stricken working class miners in Harlan County.
Harlan County mine family

So before I say a few words about what's happening in Wisconsin, I think its worthwhile making it clear that I have no time for the tea party radicals who want to take American back to the 1920's. I have no time for the uneducated ideologues who slept through history class and think that our water would be safe to drink, our food would be safe to eat, and our medicines and drugs unadulterated, without a strong national government. Some of these same people defend huge salaries for corporate fat-cats who presided over the financial demise of their own companies and who nearly destroyed our country in the process. And, some of these people would be just as happy to see us go back to the days when people like the Koch brothers could rule over an energy empire that cares nothing about worker safety or worker health...that believes that corporations have only one duty, and that is to maximize profits.

But I refuse to buy into the "which side are you on" mentality that is permeating the discussion around public unions and especially public education unions.
I take it as a given that teachers are doing heroic work. I repudiate the people who feel that in order to justify their efforts to squeeze public education, that they must demean public educators and contend that they aren't doing their job.
My issue is with the liberals and democrats who believe that its all right to address the compensation demands of public educators by inflicting cuts on public schools, instead of funding those increases out of increased revenues. Let's be frank, it doesn't take any courage for we liberals to support increased compensation for our friends in public labor unions any more than it takes courage for Republicans to provide billions of dollars in subsidies to their friends and donors in big oil.

It takes no courage to fund compensation increases on the backs of children, by allowing cuts to textbooks, music and the arts, or cutting the jobs of young teachers, so that class sizes increase. We have way too many liberals who are in denial about the consequences of unrestrained labor rights when the State is refusing to fund compensation increases with increased revenues.

Over the weekend, Governor Dayton, for whom I proudly voted, is reported to have claimed that public educators all over the State have taken compensation freezes, an assertion that is patently misleading. Most districts increased teacher compensation by 3 percent to 5% over the last two years, which allowed those districts to pay step increases, lane increases and modest health insurance contribution increases. The increases were small in comparison to past years, but the increases were paid for with program cuts and layoffs in many districts.

The first duty of statesmen is to confront the truth, and the truth of the matter is that in Minnesota, we have been balancing the education budget on the backs of children. Republicans and Democrats have engineered a great compromise. The Democrats are allowed to protect labor's rights to compensation increases we cannot afford unless we change our budget priorities, and the Republicans are allowed to protect their pledge to the taxpayers league. When Democrats go down the road of helping their labor allies get pay increases on the backs of children, then I just cannot be on that side, as much as it makes me squirm to have my liberal friends accuse me of being anti-labor. Paying teachers more is a noble cause, but allowing it to happen without providing the necessary funding is a form of political cowardice.
If you believe in paying teachers more, good for you. You are right to value education professionals and you are right to recognize that we can do a better job of attracting bright hard working teachers if we reward them well.
But if you believe that, then you should step up to the plate and recognize that the only honest way to accomplish that objective is to provide money in the budget to fund those increases. Too many democrats pretend that teacher compensation can go up at 4% while school funding goes up 2 percent without consequence. Too many republicans believe that we can starve public education without consequence to future generations.

I heard a pundit on MSNBC say that the issue in Wisconsin is whether public educators are going to be forced to limit their pay increases to the rate of inflation. In short, he thinks that the dispute in Wisconsin is whether public employees should have the right to strike to take an ever increasing share out of the education budget, without corresponding funding increases from the legislature. I won't sign up for that side, any more than I choose to side with the "back to the jungle" tea party crowd brought to us by Fox TV.

If I have to choose a side, I choose the side of children. When school programs get cut, its the children of working people who lose out. When class sizes increase and new teachers are laid off to fund compensation increases, its the children of the next generation of working people who lose out. I say to Governor Dayton that if he wants teachers salaries to go up, good, but then needs he to accomplish it by providing enough money in the budget to keep existing programs and provide those increases as well. Salary increases without revenues to fund it, isn't pro-labor, its pandering.

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