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In a Democracy, Freedom of Assembly Trumps "Free Enterprise"

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It’s illegal in America now to buy or sell a human being, but a recorded telephone conversation between a Republican governor and a guy he thought was a billionaire benefactor shows that it’s still possible to own a politician.

Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker didn’t have time to talk to Democratic leaders or union officials about his anti-union legislation – a proposal that has incited protests by tens of thousands for more than a week in Madison. But he jumped on the phone for 20 minutes this week when told the caller was billionaire David Koch, who was Walker’s second largest campaign contributor, who provided $1 million to a GOP fund to attack Walker’s opponent and who bankrolls radical libertarian organizations and the Tea Party.

Republicans like Walker, owned by billionaires like Koch, are fulfilling demands from corporate interests that government “free” enterprise by slashing corporate taxes and regulation. Over the past three years, America has suffered the consequences of a government under-funded after tax breaks to the rich and under-performing after years of lax regulation. The result: a growing federal deficit, the Wall Street collapse, the BP oil spill and the deaths of 29 Upper Big Branch miners. Still, Republicans want more government atrophy. That would leave only one restraint on corporate control of the economy, environment and government.

That one restraint is labor unions. A union is workers using their constitutionally-guaranteed freedom to assemble, the right to get together as a group, in this case a labor organization, to negotiate collectively with employers for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

Workers who gathered together in unions over two centuries in this country have succeeded in raising their wages, as well as the wages of non-union workers in competing industries. Union workers secured improved working conditions so fewer were killed on the job. And they achieved creation of the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which protects the safety of all workers. Over the decades, unions played a major role is obtaining legislation barring child labor, standardizing the 40-hour work week, and creating both Social Security and Medicare.

Similarly, studies show union successes enhance the lives of all workers in a state. In anti-union states, the average worker earns $5,333 less a year, the proportion of people without health insurance is 21 percent higher and the rate of workplace death is 51 percent higher. In addition, there’s evidence that union workers improve quality. Currently, after receiving an education from union teachers, Wisconsin youngsters collectively score second highest in the nation on the ACT/SAT college admission tests. By contrast, the five states barring teacher unions rank at the bottom of the pack: South Carolina dead last at 50 th; North Carolina, second last at 49 th; Georgia third from last at 47 th; Texas fourth from last at 47 th, and Virginia ever so slightly better at 44 th.

Still, Wisconsin Gov. Walker wants to destroy his state’s teachers unions. Two studies determined that public workers, that is those employed by governments such as teachers, firefighters and police officers, earn less than their counterparts in the private sector when both benefits and education are factored into the calculation. It wasn’t union workers, in the public or the private sector, who caused states’ financial crises. That was gambling on Wall Street, which ravaged the economy. Still, Republican governors across the country are demanding that government workers pay.

The government workers in Wisconsin already agreed to accept Walker’s financial demands – that they pay more for their pensions and health care. This negates Walker’s contention that this dispute is about the budget. The governor is demanding more than those financial concessions. He wants the legislature to cripple the unions’ ability to bargain for improvements in the future. In his “budget repair bill,” he would strip government workers of their right to negotiate over working conditions and benefits. They’d be able to discuss wages but could never get an increase above inflation.

This is union busting. At the demand of corporate interests. And Walker is joined by Republicans in Ohio, Indiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and others in attempting to do it, both to private and public sector workers.

This is not about money. It’s about controlling America. Corporations have bought Republicans, who now chant the corporate mantra that government coddles its citizens with the likes of mine and food safety rules.

Walker’s eagerness to talk to David Koch illustrates this. Koch and his brother Charles own the second largest privately-held company in America. Only the fortunes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates exceed the Kochs’ $35 billion. They’ve used that money to finance the supposedly-grassroots Tea Party and conservative groups like the Americans for Prosperity Foundation (APF) that have funneled money into anti-reform policies – including attempts to reverse environmental and health care legislation.

It’s a giant circle. Koch got Walker elected. The Koch-backed Tea Party now rallies in Madison against the public employees. The Koch-financed APF bought $320,000 in TV ads against the public workers. Other Koch-financed GOP governors are sending letters of support to Walker. In his few weeks as governor, Walker passed legislation to lower tax rates for and limit damage awards against businesses like the Kochs’. In addition, tucked into the anti-union bill is a provision that would enable Walker to sell the state’s power plants to the Kochs without bids or state agency review.

Corporations are accomplishing their goal of shriveling government to the point of ineffectiveness so “enterprise” is “free” to run rogue. Now with their purchased politicians, corporations are trying to do the same to unions – the only organization other than government that has traditionally effectively defended working Americans.

In the recorded conversation between Walker and a liberal blogger posing as Koch, Walker accepted an offer of a vacation trip from the “billionaire” if he “crushed” the public employee unions and said his effort was to get “ our freedoms back.”

That’s exactly right. This is a contest between the excesses of “free” enterprise and the constitutionally-protected freedom of assembly. And getting “our freedoms back” means wresting them back from corporations.