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The real issues: A Wisconsin update

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | February 28, 2011

The Wisconsin protests are about much more than budgets and unions. As I observed in What Conservatives Really Want, the conservative story about budget deficits is a ruse to turn the country conservative in every area.  Karl Rove and Shep Smith have made it clear on Fox: If the Wisconsin plan to kill the public employees’ unions succeeds, then there will be little union money in the future to support democratic candidates. Conservatives will be effectively unopposed in raising campaign funding in most elections, including the presidential elections. This will mean a thoroughly conservative America in every issue area.

The media, with few exceptions, is failing to get at the deeper issues.

Let’s start with the case of the Lincoln legislators. As is well known about Lincoln, and as the Political Wire reports,

On December 5, 1840, Democrats “proposed an early adjournment, knowing this would bring a speedy end to the State Bank. The Whigs tried to counter by leaving the capitol building before the vote, but the doors were locked. That’s when Lincoln made his move. He headed for the second story, opened a window and jumped to the ground!”

Lincoln would be, and we all should be, proud that the Wisconsin state senators have courageously crossed the state line to Illinois to avoid a quorum in Wisconsin that would have a disastrous effect, not only on Wisconsin, but on America for the indefinite future.

Quorum rules are an inherent part of democracy. They are in the Wisconsin Constitution for a reason. When an extreme move by a legislative majority would be a disaster, patriotic legislators can, like Lincoln, refuse to allow the disaster is the have the power to stop it. That is their democratic duty, not only to their constituents, but to the nation.

That is why I think these legislators should be called the “Lincoln Legislators” as a term of honor. They understand that their courage is being called upon, not just in the name of collective bargaining rights, but in the name of protecting democracy from a total conservative takeover. The Lincoln story, and the greater good story, should be in the media every day. And Democrats nationwide should be hailing the courage, and vital importance, of those legislators.

Yet the media keeps reporting on them as “fleeing” and refusing to do their jobs. Where there is positive reporting, as on MSNBC’s The Ed Show, it is only about defending unions and collective bargaining rights for working people.

The media — and the Democrats — also need to do a much better job on a sneaky conservative media strategy. The clearest example occurred in the NY Times. David Brooks, in his Feb. 21, 2011 column wrote: “Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers.” I turned on CNN that day and heard Anderson Cooper introduce the Wisconsin protest story as a battle between taxpayers and unions. These are massive distortions, but they are what conservatives want the public to believe.

The real issue is whether conservatives will get what they really want: the ability to turn the country conservative on every issue, legally and permanently. Eliminating the public sector unions could achieve that. Collective bargaining rights are the immediate issue, but they are symbolic of the real issue at stake. That is the story the media should be telling — and that Democrats everywhere in America should be shouting out loud.

What is standing in the way of having the real story told? It is the frame of collective bargaining itself, which only points to the parties that are doing the bargaining and what they are bargaining over.

The real point of collective bargaining is the idea of fairness inherent in democracy. Without unions, large corporations have an unfair advantage in hiring individual workers: Workers have to take what is offered, a fair wage for work done or not. Unions help to even the playing field, enabling workers to have a fair chance against wealthy, powerful large organizations — whether corporations or governments.

But public employees’ unions, in bargaining with governments, are raising deeper issues in which wealthy corporations and individuals play a huge role. The public employees’ unions are aware that the top one percent of Americans have more financial assets than the bottom 95 percent — a staggering disproportion of wealth. The wealthy have, to a large extent, amassed that wealth through indirect contributions to them by governments — governments build roads corporations use, fund schools that train their workers, subsidize their energy costs, do research they capitalize on, subsidize their access to resources, promote trade for them, and on and on.

Meanwhile, over the past three decades, while corporations and their investors have grown immensely richer on the public largesse, middle class workers have had no substantive wage increases, leaving them poorer and poorer.  Those immensely wealthy corporations and individuals have, through political contributions, have managed to rig our politics so that they pay back only an inadequate amount into the system that has enabled them to become wealthy.

The real targets of the public employees’ unions are the wealthy free riders who, in a fair political economy, would be giving back more to the nation, and to the states and communities they function in.

That is the obvious half of what the Wisconsin protests are about. The other half concerns the rights of ordinary people in a democracy — rights conservatives want to deny, whether gay rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, retirement rights, or the right to the best health a nation can provide to all its citizens. Unions, through their political contributions, support the basic freedoms, protections, and resources we all require to have a decent life and live in a civilized society.  If those unions are destroyed, American life will become unrecognizable in a remarkably short time.

Democracy as we know it is at stake in the Wisconsin protests, not just budgets and unions.

Progressives are organizing rallies to “Save The American Dream.” They are understating the case.

If Democrats are not talking out loud about these deeper issues, then they are, by their reticence and silence, helping conservatives destroy unions, defund the Democratic party, and take over the country.

Comments to “The real issues: A Wisconsin update

  1. Yes, the destruction of the Democrat Partys ability to launder tax dollars witheld from workers in the form of union dues into campaign cash for themselves is the goal and it is about time it happened.

  2. Agreed, unions are not perfect; but the right of folks to group together and collectively bargain must be defended or the standard of living of the majority will continue to decline and we will have few avenues to make our voices heard.

  3. Professor Lakoff has not only nailed the subject perfectly, he has rolled back many of the obscuring verbiage and labels used by the Conservative shock troops. As someone who has lived in Wisconsin most of my life, I can truthfully and accurately say that the majority of statements posted here against the Professor’s points are simply, flat-out, wrong. You are either a part of the greedy destructive forces or you are incredibly ignorant. Walker is simply a hired gun. Our state was not broke when Walker was elected. It wasn’t even broken. Now we are both, thanks to the illegal acts of our so-called governor and his yes-sir cronies in the state legislature. But it is not just about Wisconsin. The actions in Michigan are even more scary. In Michigan, your right to vote is worthless. A corporation can rule your life in a matter of minutes and there isn’t anything you can do about it. Other states are toppling like dominoes as a heavily funded, highly vocal and visible minority rapidly strip our country of those rights (including the right to assemble freely and work cooperatively – unionize) that we have claimed to hold self evident. Guess we got that part wrong.

  4. Professor Lakoff,

    You are absolutely correct Sir!! The Lincoln Legislators are heros of democracy. I have never seen so much power grabbing by Republicans in my life (and I lived through Nixon’s attempts.)

    Incidently, I’ve read much of your work (Philosophy in the Flesh, 3 times!) and recommend it to all.

  5. Unfortunately, it feels like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. A great number of people who espouse the politics of the radical right are what Ernest House would call fundamentalists. I call them true believers; regardless, when facts contradict their beliefs (which come from a source higher than you or I or science, the facts bounce off. The real question would seem to me to be how to wake these true believers up to the fact that they are tools of their own destruction.

    The Handbasket Chronicles

  6. Is it not true that Democrat Campaigns are funded by Corporations As well as Republican Campaigns?
    Perhaps the real issue is Campaign Funding reform? Yes?

    Is it not also true that The Federal Government is 14 Trillion in debt, States and municipalities also in serious debt?

    Scott Walker is doing his best to balance the State of Wisconsin Budget.

    If anyone has an agenda in the mix watch this video:

  7. I hate the comparison to the Health Care bill. The wingnuts always say “Ramed down our throat”. The GOP was invited to work on the bill, which was one on Obama’s campaign promises and they chose not too. When it passed, they came up with a clever slogan. Walker campaigned on balancing the budget, not corporate tax give-aways, busting unions and taking away workers rights. He also was selective, police and firemen are exempt. He also didn’t campaign on privatizing utilities. People are so stupid. The real prize is going after the minimum wages, safe working conditions, a forty hour work week. All of those are complements of unions. America, wake up! I gotta hand it to the GOP/Tea Party they are experts at playing on peoples ignorance, fear and hate. Rove is an evil genius.

  8. George Lakoof is a professor of linguistics. How does that qualify him as any kind of authority on economics or ethics. There are so many false statements in this article that it is pointless to itemize them. Sorry George, I have read other things you have written and you have even less credibility than that Hollywood whack job Michael Moore.

  9. Inspired by this post, I have created a blog in support of the “Lincoln 14”, the senators who escaped to IL to stall Scott Walker’s druken rampage and call attention to his problems.

    I believe the next step in the narrative is to shape Walker as a “Drunken father” of our Wisconsin family as spelled out in this post:

    My writing uses much of Lakoff’s ideas. Thank you for your work. I welcome feedback and please spread the word!

  10. Wow.

    Just wow.

    I had to double check that this was written by a professor.

    Businesses and corporations split their money between the two parties. Heck, the Dems received more money from corporate interests than Republicans the last two cycles and the advantage the GOP has in that area is minimal at best most years.

    You can justify the fleebaggers all you wish, but it is silly. They aren’t working for the people — they aren’t working, period. Haven’t we been told for the last two years that elections have consequences?

    WI is broke. They don’t have money. And that unions are willing to lose employees rather than their power is telling. This will be happening nationally because the money isn’t there.

    And where is the concern about access? These unions effectively hire their managers. We heard whining about Haliburton endlessly…but we should champion this nonsense? FDR said public unions are a bad idea and we have shown that here. The behavior of the police in stating a plan to ignore orders shows that public unions cannot be trusted.

    End them all. We have seen a 50 yr experiment in public sector unionism and it was a dud. That ending it hurts Democrats seems to be a poor reason to continue a bad policy.

    • Did you ever stop to consider that Wisconsin is “broke” because Scott Walker gave $150 million tax breaks to businesses? The state would have had a budget surplus if Walker hadn’t lined the pockets of his campaign contributors, including privatization of power plants so his Koch supporters can buy them and charge WI tax payers even more for their energy. State employees have agreed to pay more for their insurance and health care. Walker doesn’t need to strip collective bargaining rights to balance a budget. Walker states he is going to create 250,000 private sector jobs….let’t think about that for a second…. Employers do not set up shop in a state where there is no educated work force….there is no educated work force if you don’t have good schools. Get the facts!

  11. Professor, no one has a right to collective bargaining. I see that nowhere in the Constitution. We have the right to associate with one another of course, and if public employees wish to form clubs that is their perogative.

    But for government employees to negotiate with other government employees for compensation is a huge conflict of interest. You may argue that the unions are negotiating with elected officials, and that if the electorate doesn’t like the results they can replace the officials. You are right. See Wisconsin. Walker is doing what he was elected to do.

    Collective bargaining for public employees was a “right” granted by legislatures in various states a few decades ago. Now that the results are clear, that “right” is properly being rescinded.

    • Bill –

      Bad logic. So the rights given to blacks in the civil rights bill of 1964 are not true rights under your definition. Only rights enumerated in the constitution are real huh? So there is no right for a corporation to exist under your definition, since they are completely legistlative constructs. There is no right to have a contract enforced by the government in the constitution, so all contracts are really null and void huh?

    • Walker never mentioned limiting collective bargaining rights when he was campaigning. In other words, that is NOT what he was elected to do.

  12. Yes, the destruction of the Democrat Partys ability to launder tax dollars witheld from workers in the form of union dues into campaign cash for themselves is the goal and it is about time it happened.

  13. Here is good news for France and bad News for Wisconsin.

    recently the mainstreme media announced that most of Wisconsin’s eighth ( 8th graders) graders cannot read at all. In france, just seven months into the ‘first grade ( 1 st grade) the children are reading both French and Hebrew. What the hell is going on with the public sector? Do they sit around, collect checks via direct deposit, don’t care about work, watch reality – boaring TV, and let the kids suffer? Why should only democrats, who are failing our children, get paid by our government and not ‘one’ republican in the private sector. Big corps no longer contribute politically to republicans, evident in the last two decades of election cycles ( all on factaul and government records).

    Well France is doing much better than public union teachers by far and it is a travesty that Cal promotes mediocrity as superior.

    • Fred,

      Wisconsin has the second highest ACT scores in the country. You have been drinking the Kool aid too long. Maybe you and Charlie Sheen should consider rehab together.

    • Teachers in France are unionized. Clearly that’s not the factor that’s making the difference.

  14. Wisconsin State Workers had 16 Furlough days in 2010 and are starting 2011 with another 16 Furlough days, which has been a financial hardship for families and individuals who are on the lower scale.

    Truthfully, most of the people who are working today, were in high school or college, when decisions were being made regarding pension & benefits.

    As a former business owner, the story about “salting” is as rare as hens teeth.

    And I agree with debryan, stop blaming Working Men & Women for the financial crisis, it was the ‘big boys’ who want more then their share.

  15. It’s almost worth it to sit back and let Walker and Kasick and the other governer’s have their way. Get rid of collectiev bargaining and then see how the self righteous uninformed feel when once they are done demolishing the Unions they come after the rest of the country who isn’t rich. Maybe 20 years ago it was true that to have a public service job meant job security, great benefits and a wage that more than paid the bills, but I’m here to assure you as a State worker and Union member, THAT IS NO LONGER TRUE! It wouldn’t be so bad if people were researching for themselves and basing their opinions on information that is current and not just taking the word of those who would profit from the demise of collective bargaining.

    While crying that the unions are the cause of or large contributer to the budget crisis, ask yourselves “why is it ok to enforce a wage freeze 5 out of nine years, minimize health care so that there is only one choice and that with rising astronomical costs while giving up to five figure raises to an executive board”. How is it ok for those who have already profitted from underhanded dealings (in the corporate world) that really helped to cause the crisis we are in and not also be made to contribute to aiding in the recovery. Is the only thing the “powers that be” can think of is to continue to take from those who already don’t have.

    Do we not learn from our past? Was not this country originally founded as a result of the “haves” continuing to take from the “have nots” while they sat on their fat cushions and laughed? Did we not fight a civil war because the “haves” were opressing the “have nots”. When will we ever learn that the only true America is the one where we are ALL created equal and are ALL responsibile for the health and well being of the country and not just out to profit whatever means. (and trust me, there republican base will profit. Ever hear of the word “sweatshops”?) Wake up people and get off your high horse because trust me, once they finish (if they can) with the unions, they will come after you!

  16. Saying “no” is their right, but at least they showed up and did their job!! Even knowing they would lose.

    Sounds like the democratic legislatures who refuse to do their jobs (simply showing up and geting paid – wow! that’s tough work!), should be fired – oh wait, union rules don’t allow firing someone for not doing their job, or they might but first they must be put on paid administrative leave for up to 2 years while the union investigates to see if they realy did not show up to do their job…….

    Collective bargaining is a good right, but in a competitive enviornment. in a non-competitive environment, where is the ability to give and take and natural pressure to meet market both in terms of want the buyer and seller want and can afford – in goverbment, is doesn’t exist and as such has gotten to far one sided.

    and finally, there are only so many dollars at the disposal of the governmenet and the government must choose where to spend them. if they decide to change the market mix, that is their right. If the elected officials want to buy more butter than guns, then let them – and the market will be forced to adapt to the needs.

    and it sure looks like the Wisconsin governemtn can run just fine with so many on strike – I guess it is time to downsize – lets start with 1,500 this week.

    and the federal bureaucracy reduction starts next week!

  17. Why does the “union” get blamed for protecting under-achieving employees? Union contracts have language which includes exactly how to proceed to remove a union employee from the job. Yet it is rarely done. Yes, the procedure is lengthy,and the bosses don’t want to go through it, but then they shouldn’t turn around a cry about protectionism. The contract language protects the employee from unfair discharge.

  18. “The working classes didn’t bring this on. It was the big boys that thought the financial drunk was going to last forever and over-bought, over-merged and over-capitalized.”
    That came from Will Rogers in 1931.
    Today he’d be accused of engaging in class warfare.
    I am reminded of the union mantra: They only call it class warfare when we fight back.

    On Wisconsin!

  19. BRAVO BRUCE!!! You get it. As a small business owner, I basically moved my operation into my home, then opened it as a sole proprietorship and hired “consultants” to help me operate. Otherwise, I would have gone belly up. The people I hired got more in hourly wages than the union would have provided. I had more business than I could handle – and everybody was happy. And, no unfunded liabilities.

  20. There is no thing as ‘Progressive[s].’ that is a hero/villian narrative derived by commy leftist like yourself. Your narrative decries that every single freedom from federal and freedom from state-lover(s) are inherently evil and must be defeated for true democracy( as the State tells you how to live cradle to the grave , like a father figure you dispised in one of your rants on religious patriotism) to exist. The USA is run by multiculturalism, which has failed in each state’s test, including Athens’ Classical period ( Macedonians complained Athenians were racists and as Macedonians won control, they wound up being the true racists and Athenians fled and helpped the etruscans start Rome. ).

    Progressives is something libtards made up in their little minds to make themselves feel ‘special.’ It is an illusion.

  21. Bruce –
    Agreed, unions are not perfect; but the right of folks to group together and collectively bargain must be defended or the standard of living of the majority will continue to decline and we will have few avenues to make our voices heard.

  22. Conservatives keep saying that they are doing the will of the people(taxpayers/vote), yet when the Democrats where in the majority (taxpayers/vote); all they did was whine and said no.

    Wisconsin Workers, Teachers, Nurses, Firemen, Policemen are Taxpayers/VOTERS

  23. I would like to focus on an aspect of unions that academics rarely, if ever, address and most likely have little first-hand experience with. Their pro-union argument is usually about the poor worker vs. the evil corporation or government that would trample on their rights and generally take advantage of them if it were not for their collective bargaining.

    The reality of day-to-day business is quite different. I owned an open-shop (non-union)contracting business in Southern California for 17 years. I had been told over that time that roughly 80% of contractors were open shop – but can’t swear to the exact percentage. My experience in dealing with the State and primarily the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), was that it was all about power, control, money and votes.

    They would pressure the State (through donations, lobbying etc.)to make all state contracts require union labor (PLA’s – Project Labor Agreements). Guess what that does to the cost of State construction projects? They would manipulate the Prevailing Wage system to their best advantage. The State would often simply incorporate their documentation and wage rates into the requirements. I dare anyone to try and understand the Prevailing Wage system and understand the logic behind many of it’s convoluted rules, wage rates and variations by county.

    I wonder if Prof. Lakoff has ever owned a business where he had to win contracts in a very competitive market, meet payroll, purchase equipment and supplies and all of the other requirements of running a business. Imagine, for example, that a small electrical contractor wins a large contract and needs to hire a project manager and more employees (people that were glad to get the work at an agreed to wage and benefit package). The reality of what happened to a friend of mine is that he was victimized by a union practice called “Salting.” The PM he hired was actually placed there by the union to see that the project failed. At the end of the day, he was out of business and the “PM” went back to the union shop as a hero for putting another open shop out of business.

    When we moved from SoCal, we hired a moving company to pack and store our belongings. The first day a crew came out to pack and box everything and the second day a crew came out to load the truck and put everything in storage. The first crew (non-union) was fast, efficient and polite. Their livelihood, and continued employment by the large moving company, depended on it. The second crew was over-staffed, slow, sloppy and not very friendly. You guessed it – union. They knew that they had job security regardless of how they performed.

    I could go on but have already taken up too much space and time and would like to close with the caveat that the union debate is not black and white. We should not blindly think that all union activity is good, or bad for that matter. The academics like to make it a class warfare issue, when often the victims of unions are just regular working stiffs or owners of small contracting businesses who most often started as techs and were attempting to live the dream of building their own business.

  24. …and later when the republicans decide not to show up for some vote they don’t like? will that be considered fair? and all the complaints about the senate republicans using the fillibuster option – i didn’t see any writeups about how fair that was.

    So, we either have the will of the people (the votr/taxpayers had clear indications of the will of the politicians when they were voted in last fall), or we have a bunch of whiners taking the ball and not playing the game because they don’t like the possible outcome.

    Don’t bother writing a one sided note – talk about how it can fall both ways – else all we will get is a super majority ramming Obama care down the throat of the minority.

    this ain’t rocket science!

  25. Really like your term “Lincoln Legislators” for the Wisconsin state senators who courageously are saying NO.

    Finally! Democrats became the Party of Hell No, and they like wearing Wisconsin Red.

    Of course, republicans are upset, they thought they were the only ones who could say No.

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