Popular Movements for Human Rights: Tunisia, Egypt, & Wisconsin?

“To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men” – Abraham Lincoln

As predicted, the riots in Tunisia have given birth to popular uprisings across the globe. Most recently, the Egyptians cast off their dictator Hosni Mubarak, demanding freedom. Protests have broken out in Yemen, Jordan, and even Iran. The oppressed masses are unifying and on the move.

The demands for freedom have even reached our shores. Today in Wisconsin massive protests crowded the state capitol building making their demands heard. As was the case with Tunisia and Egypt, the Wisconsinites were demanding fairness and basic, fundamental human rights. Facing massive unemployment and an utter lack of democratic freedoms, the only option left was to stage a demonstration.

OK, I may have my facts mixed up a bit. The Tunisians and Egyptians face some employment difficulties (especially Tunisia); and while the Wisconsin unemployment rate is 7.9%, all of the protesters have jobs. For that matter, Wisconsin also has democratic freedoms – in fact, they just had an election in November of 2010 and a smooth, non-violent transition of power (as is the case in stable democracies).

OK, so it wasn’t jobs or freedom. No, in Wisconsin the protests were staged by public union workers opposed to the budget proposal of newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker and the Republican majority in the legislature. It seems that governor Walker had the audacity to include a provision that stripped public unions of their collective bargaining powers – effectively ending their functional existence.

CBS news is reporting: “Walker’s proposal would require state workers to pay for half of their pension costs, and it would more than double their health care contributions. It would strip public worker unions of their ability to negotiate pensions, working conditions or benefits. Any wage increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index, and unions would lose their ability to have dues deducted from state paychecks.” (HE’S GONE TO FAR!!!)

OK, so what is all this nonsense? First, let me reiterate my position on public unions. I don’t think they should exist. I find them perverse and reprehensible in a democracy.

It is not my intention to trample freedom of association (and thus collective bargaining), but we must consider who is bargaining against whom. In private industry, unions organize to demand a higher share of the profits in exchange for their services. It’s all fair game. They demand more, and more, and eventually the boss will fire everybody and start over. The trick is finding the balance where everybody’s happy. (Or, if not happy, at least willing to carry on.)

In the public sector, the game is different. The unions aren’t demanding that they get a higher share of the profits – there are no profits. No, the unions are demanding that the private citizens give up a greater portion of their hard-earned paycheck and give it to the union. On what grounds? This is the worst form of democracy; groups organizing to extort money from other citizens through the power of the government.

During the protests, the crowds changed, (I’m not kidding) “freedom, democracy, unions!” Ohhhh, the irony.

In the movie A Few Good Men, one of the Marines took the stand and explained their creed of “unit, corps, God, country” – in that order. That is, this is the hierarchy of allegiance. One wonders if the same is true of “freedom, democracy, unions”. If so, then this situation resolves itself.

Pure democracy is a dangerous thing – the many will oppress the few. Not to worry, freedom trumps democracy in the new creed, and we will defend freedom. Both of these then would outrank unions.

Now, freedom includes freedom of association – and the state (meaning the people) certainly retain the right to freely associate with who they will – including the right to fire all public union employees. Furthermore, they just had an election in Wisconsin. “Freedom, Democracy …. [then] Unions”. I guess they have the order right, but it makes me wonder why they’re protesting.

As for governor Walker, I think he’s on the right path, but needs to push farther. To the extent that the government does have to fund things (and we can certainly debate public education), they ought to provide the most services for the least cost. This is a move in that direction.


UPDATE: President Obama has weighed in with support for the public unions, making the following statement: “I think it’s very important for us to understand that public employees, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends. They make a lot of sacrifices and make a big contribution. And I think it’s important not to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees.”

Some quick notes: There are budget problems, and the proposal in Wisconsin merely demands that public employees pay a larger share of their benefits and retirement package – still far less than the private sector. Of course they make sacrifices and contributions – but so do the rest of us. Yes, these are our neighbors … and we’re their neighbors as well. They are collectively bargaining to take a bigger chunk of our labor, our productivity, our work – for their own benefit. They are demanding that we make greater financial sacrifices so they don’t have to. Does that sound neighborly?

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