Wisconsin Union Fight Shows How Bosses Divide and Conquer Workers

Gov. Scott Walker's premise is that the governor knows best, and the workers should know their place.

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Watching the drama unfold over fundamental labor rights in Wisconsin, I can’t help but think of a grim joke locals told me when I was living in Budapest. It goes like this:

A Brit, an American and a Hungarian are approached by a genie, who offers each one of them a wish granted. “Well, my neighbor has a lovely country home I admire,” said the Brit. “I’d like one just like his.” Poof! It was done.

Then the American spoke. “My neighbor has a big, gas-guzzling car. I want one bigger and more expensive than his,” he said. A wave of the genie’s hand, and the car appeared.

Then the genie came to the Hungarian, who thought carefully. “My neighbor has a fat, healthy sheep on his farm,” the Hungarian said. “I want you to kill his sheep.”

A joke, to be sure, but not an uncommon attitude among what was then barely post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. Decades of living under the communists had led some brave souls to challenge the regime (successfully, ultimately). But they had also driven much of the public into misdirected envy and resentment, as the corrupt party leaders convinced struggling citizens that the enemy was their neighbor who had a phone line, or a slightly better-paying job, as opposed to the regimes that oppressed all of them more or less equally.

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Should public sector workers have collective bargaining rights?]

It’s alarming how successful leaders in our capitalist economy have been in using similar tactics. With labor union membership at anemic levels, and private sector workers forced into give-backs, supposedly to keep companies alive, anti-union elected officials have presented the situation as thus: the enemy, to those private sector workers who have lost their jobs or had their wages and benefits slashed, is not moneyed interests, but the public sector workers who haven’t been damaged quite as badly as some in the public sector. Financial concessions are one thing--and the unions in Wisconsin have already agreed to them--but Gov. Scott Walker wants more. He wants power (or “flexibility,” as he calls it) to meddle with the jobs and conditions of government workers without even having to negotiate with them. The premise is that somehow, the governor knows best, and the workers should know their place. [ See 10 things you didn't know about Scott Walker.]

Charles Ferguson, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, reminded us of the real winners and losers as he made his acceptance speech Sunday night, observing:

Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong.

Will private-sector workers look to the government workers’ hard-fought salaries and benefits as something to fight for in their own negotiations? Or will they just start slaughtering sheep?