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New York workers' stake in Wisconsin

Jonathan P Hicks | 4/12/2011, 4:47 p.m.

For the average Black New Yorker, the mention of the state of Wisconsin is likely to conjure images of farmland, perhaps even of cheese. To many of us, it is a distant Midwestern land with few Black people and as much relevance to New York as Uzbekistan. But the recent political and labor showdown in Wisconsin ought to create alarm and outrage and cause us here in New York to feel uncomfortably connected.

In the last month, Wisconsin's political landscape has heralded some warning signs not just for the health of the American labor movement but for African-Americans throughout the country. It's a state where unions have suffered a stunning setback in a historically progressive state at the hands of a conservative Republic governor and legislature. This should cause concern because those setbacks can easily spread to other states. At the hands of the state's governor, Wisconsin's public employees unions were ultimately stripped of most of their ability to engage in collective bargaining. The assault is already being played out in some form or fashion in other states, most notably Ohio.

Scott Walker, Wisconsin's governor, argued that the changes to collective bargaining would enable the state to reduce spending and stimulate economic growth. This is similar to the argument that former President George W. Bush used in his championing of two federal tax reductions that passed in Congress. What followed instead was the crippling recession from which the country is now laboring to emerge.

For Black New Yorkers, the advance of the Republican dream of squashing labor rights in a state historically known for its progressive labor environment should be particularly chilling. For one thing, municipal unions--the people who collect garbage, teach, fight fires and work in government office jobs--have increasingly become the organizations that assist in the rise in the Black middle-class workforce. It's the force that has helped a good segment of the Black workforce to thrive.

According to the United States Department of Labor, union membership in the public sector is more than five times higher than in the private sector. And the implications for African-American workers are particularly significant, since Black workers are more likely to be members of unions than their white counterparts, the Labor Department figures indicate. None of this should be lost on New Yorkers, who are now facing a passionate call by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to eliminate the jobs of nearly 5,000 teachers.

We should also be alarmed because the crippling of the union movement is uppermost on the agenda of the conservative Republican leadership in this country. After all, the political muscle--and money--of organized labor is now the primary counterbalance to the huge sums of money spent by the well-financed Republican right. And what better way to end the political and electoral influence of the liberal-leaning unions than to diminish their very lifeblood: The right to organize workers in collective bargaining agreements?

Walker's inflexible position led to several weeks of heated demonstrations and political gamesmanship in Wisconsin's state capitol. The political skirmish drew a public outcry of a level rarely seen in modern American history, with tens of thousands of union members, students and everyday citizens pouring into the state capitol in Madison to protest the prospect of ending collective bargaining with the state's workers. But, in the end, the governor and his Republican colleagues prevailed in cutting the bargaining rights of most of the state's unionized government workers.

If there is any silver lining whatsoever to this ominous cloud, it is in the huge number of people who protested for weeks on end against the Republicans' scheme. It is a sign that average, everyday citizens understand when their influence, no matter how limited, is under siege. It's an important warning sign for working-class and middle-class Americans--even in New York--to pay stricter attention to the battering by the Republican right, and a sign of how dangerous those tactics can be.