The rallying cry of the labor movement is “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The Bible teaches us that “I am my brother’s keeper.” Benjamin Franklin implored fellow delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence saying, “We must hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” And Paul Wellstone used to always say, “We all do better when we all do better.”
What is happening in Wisconsin, Minnesota and across the country is not simply a battle to balance budgets. It is a battle between two very different stories and visions of society.
On one side is a progressive story of community, collective rights and responsibilities.
On the other side is a conservative story of competition, winners and losers, and individual choice and risk. This conservative story says, “You’re on your own, good luck. You’re alone — make it work.”
The conservative’s story tries to convince us that free markets, deregulation, limited government, no unions, no taxes, and turning a blind eye and deaf ear to those unemployed or less fortunate (or blaming them for bad life choices) will solve our problems.
Competition and free markets
It says the most fortunate — the wealthiest individuals and corporations — deserve their enormous wealth even if it means so many others go with less, for we are told that is what competition and free markets are all about.
This conservative story pits one group of workers against another. It demonizes immigrants, Muslims, and any opinion that challenges free market fundamentalism.
It says if I have been hurt, you should hurt as well.
So when Gov. Scott Walker from Wisconsin refuses to accept public worker concessions until they also give up their collective voice and rights — or when media commentators ask, “Why should public sector workers enjoy rights and protections that other workers do not?” — we hear the same conservative story, a story that drives our politics and community life to the lowest denominator.
But there is also a progressive story. It says all workers deserve a right to join together for mutual aid and benefit — whether private sector workers or public sector workers, whether through a union, a co-op, or an association.
The right to create a union
This right is the law of our land, enshrined in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right of “concerted activity” — the right to act collectively as workers to negotiate in good faith and secure decent wages, benefits and working conditions without fear of reprisal. This is not a “union right,” but rather the right to create a union.
Over the past 50 years, many states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, have extended this collective right to public employees. Now several radical conservative governors and legislatures are trying to strip this fundamental right away.
The progressive story says we all have collective responsibility for one another and must share the burden in times of distress and challenge.
Budgets should not be balanced on the backs of workers, the middle class, or those who are most vulnerable when the most fortunate contribute little or nothing.
Wealthy pay a smaller percentage of income in taxes
The wealthiest corporations are sitting on over $2 trillion in cash reserves, are earning record-breaking profits, and are still not hiring American workers. Forbes magazine recently reported that many of the largest U.S. corporations paid little or no taxes, including General Electric with profits of $10.3 billion and Exxon Mobil with $45.2 billion. The wealthiest Americans — the multi-billionaires and millionaires — pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than the teachers, firefighters, janitors and snow-plow drivers now under attack.
Progressives believe those who are blessed with so much also need to share the burden. Progressives believe in respect for the dignity of all people and that all children matter.
We should be able to love whom we want, freely worship the God of our faith, and be able to pursue the American Dream regardless of where we come from without being told that if you are gay or Muslim or an immigrant you and your human rights do not matter.
The choice we face in these “budget battles” is whether we will look out for the least of these brethren, or if we only aspire to look out after ourselves.
I remain hopeful that we will reach higher. That we will tell that age-old story that each of us matters, live by the golden rule to do unto others what we would want done unto us, and remind the world and each other that indeed “we all do better when we all do better.”
Erik Peterson is a longtime progressive political activist and the director of education and labor programs for Wellstone Action.