Saturday, 19 February 2011

How Egypt Protesters are Like Union Members in Wisconsin

I recently had a useful dialog with my friend (and Democrats Abroad running mate) Rob Carolina about the Egyptian protesters, and the mystery of how victims of oppressive regimes are able to overcome justifiable fears in order to generate mass support from the populations. My oversimplified summary of this technique was, essentially:
1) Don't be afraid.
2) Show people you are not afraid.
3) Be unafraid in large numbers, consistently.
4) Survive your public display of fearlessness, so that others can see you have avoided the worst case scenario.

Problem is, if you fail to achieve 4, the whole effort can be set back generations.
Thus, under autocratic regimes it is often possible to tip a large number of people over the precipice into openly stating the opposition that they secretly feel if you can get together enough people to enact a visible display of fearlessness at the same time such that any individual member of that crowd feels comparatively safe. But this is also an opportunity for the regime itself, because if they are able to successfully put down the open opposition they send the opposite message to the one the protesters tried for - that there is good reason to be afraid.

So all credit and respect to the organisers in Egypt, and Tunisia, and Bahrain and in many other parts of the Mideast who have shown exceptional bravery and skill. In the dark hours of the night, I sometimes ask myself if I would be brave enough to stand up for the politics I support if I knew the possible result wasn't electoral defeats, but clubbings, torture and execution. I can't honestly be sure that I would. So I'm glad that the collective action effect exists.

It sounds melodramatic to say that this is the same type of thing that's at stake in Wisconsin - where the newly elected Republican Governor is currently working overtime to try and eliminate collective bargaining by public sector unions there. But actually, unions grew out of a very similar set of fears that workers of the past had about their physical and financial security, at the hands of their bosses, when they attempted to improve their working conditions.

Now, Union membership in America has declined significantly in recent years, for a whole host of reasons: decline of the manufacturing sector and the rise of the less-unionised service sectors, perceived corruption by the unions themselves, infighting and disorganisation among and by the unions, a shift away from traditional democratic politics by many blue collar workers, etc. etc. And I would go further and say that personally, I think in recent decades American unions on the while have done a poor job of representing their constituents - in particular, I think that the willingness in negotiations to sacrifice actual wage increases in favour of ever higher levels of health insurance and retirement benefits has been a lose-lose proposition for both workers and business - and has led to almost no increase in the wages of the bottom FOUR FIFTHS of Americans over the past several decades.

So Unions could do better a better job, in my opinion, of standing up for the rights of workers. Here in the UK, we have 25 days minimum vacation allowance, generous maternity and paternity policies, strong policies to prevent firing without cause and much more. Germany's worker protections are even stronger (and by the way, the German economy is currently outperforming ours by some margin, so clearly these policies are not an inevitable death knell for GDP growth).

But that doesn't mean we should allow any threat to the principle of collective negotiation to stand - quite the opposite.

Let's remember what workers had to endure back in the day the Unionisation was illegal:
Women working under sweat shop conditions organized the first union in the early 19th century. According to the book American Labor, in 1834-1836 women worked 16–17 hours a day to earn $1.25 to $2.00 a week. A girl weaver in a non-union mill would receive $4.20 a week versus $12.00 for the same work in a union mill. The workers had to buy their own needles and thread from the proprietor. They were fined for being a few minutes late for work. Women carried their own foot treadle machines or were held in the shops until the entire shop had completed an immediate delivery order. Their pay was often shorted, but a protest might result in immediate dismissal. Sometimes whole families worked from sun up to midnight. Pulmonary ailments were common due to dust accumulation on the floors and tables. Some shops had leaks or openings in the roofs, and workers worked in inclement weather.
To this day, there are employers who explicitly or implicitly threaten their workers with losing their jobs if they demand better wages, benefits or conditions. And if any individual worker refuses to cave in to this bullying, their dismissal can serve as an example to the others.

At a time of high unemployment, workers are especially vulnerable. And the decline in public sector employment has been a significant drain on our economic recovery.

So public sector unions are vital, their collective negotiation rights have historically been an important enabler for some of the most essential and basic protections, and at a time when workers have more cause than ever to be afraid individually, we shouldn't obliterate one of the important forces that makes them brave and strong collectiely.