I don’t know if it moves the meter forward, but I’ll link to Stanley Fish writing that We’re All Badgers Now. I find Mr. Fish to be irritating, almost all the time; he may not be the biggest jerk to write opinion for the New York Times, but he’s up against some stiff competition.
My general irritation with Mr. Fish is actually why I’m linking to his note, as I want to give him credit for belatedly realizing that his experience of the employer-employee relationship is not typical, and that in gauging the helpfulness of a union for his group of employees, he should consider the protection of his colleagues who lack the protection of fame and prestige.
Digression: Of course, even in this column he claims that the question asked in tenure and hiring meetings is always “Who is the smartest?”, which strikes me as a stunningly unfathomable thing for a person in academia to say. It’s not so. Nobody I know thinks it is so. Claiming that it is so does not buttress his argument (which is couldn’t, not being so) but makes him look like a fool or a liar, thus presumably detracting from his argument. The only possible positive I can imagine is that someone might somehow think that even someone who believes that about tenure still finds union protections advisable, so how much more so would anyone who understands what is actually going on. Still: the man’s a jerk.
The broader point that Mr. Fish makes is surprisingly also perceptive: the assault on unions, specifically on public employees unions, is particularly damaging because unions are the only thing that protects employees against employers. This is generally true, and more obviously true when employment is so scarce. When the boss can say that it’s his way or the highway, only unions can demand that (for instance) the fire doors be left unlocked, or the mines receive safety inspections, or that everyone who disagrees with the boss politically be fired. The unions are it.
Now, I hope that some Gentle Readers are saying to themselves—what do you mean, it’s the unions who protect workers? Doesn’t the law protect workers? Doesn’t the government protect workers? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration? The Department of Labor? The National Labor Relations Board?
The answer is, yes, the law protects workers, and the government protects workers under the law—if the unions have enough power to make that happen. When they don’t, the law changes, or the agencies are underfunded, or the laws remain unenforced, fines remain unpaid, inspectors are laid off, citations are toothless, and the employer finds it cheaper and easier to do whatever he or she wants, and trust to his own impunity.
We live in a democracy, and more than that we live in a Madisonian system of representation. That means we, as citizens, join together with other like-minded citizens in a variety of groups, factions and parties to put influence on our government to act in particular ways. The smaller the groups, the weaker the influence, the less the government acts. I’m not complaining about this, mind you—the various entities within the governments will respond to something, and groups of citizens gathered together to achieve political ends are a pretty good answer to that question. And as it happens, the political power for employees is in union. Their power in the workplace and their power in the government go together; without some political power, their workplace power would and does diminish rapidly.
There are, in theory, other ways for workers to organize for political power as workers. In practice, they don’t work. In practice, as unions have declined, the political impetus to protect workers has also declined. And workplace safety has suffered, and political and social intimidation has grown. Whether unions are great things (and I think they are), there simply is no other defense.
That’s why we are all Badgers. Mr. Fish sees it, at long last; I hope you see it, too.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,