Fifty-one years ago this week, John F. Kennedy said this about the attack on the American labor movement: “Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor — those who would cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization of the unorganized — do a disservice to the cause of democracy.”
President Kennedy’s words have never rung more true than they do today, whether here in Wisconsin, where we have begun our long battle back through our recall election process, or in Connecticut, where state employees struggle to protect their benefits and their right to bargain through an agreement.
Wisconsin public employees stand at the epicenter of the fight to preserve collective bargaining. Big corporate interests and billionaires like the Koch brothers have spent more than a generation attacking the private-sector labor movement.
And now they have turned their attention to attacking public-sector employees.If anyone had told us two years ago that in progressive Wisconsin — the birthplace of the state employee labor movement — we would be fighting to get our collective bargaining rights restored in 2011, we would never have believed them.
Just to have a chance to save collective bargaining, we offered to give back years of the things we have achieved in our contracts. Still, our opponents were after much bigger things — our very right to bargain a contract at all. Our fight to take Wisconsin back has strengthened the resolve of tens of thousands of our members and of our brothers and sisters around the country.
We are also inspired that Connecticut shows there is another road, a place where a crisis can be defeated by hard bargaining instead of by outright war.
We know reaching a tentative agreement wasn’t easy. Your governor demanded a billion dollars per year in “savings and concessions,” and it took months of struggle to reach a tentative agreement at all.
As in Wisconsin, union members took to the streets, joining thousands of others in packing town halls to demand that this time multimillionaires would contribute toward solving the budget crisis, not just working families.
We know the result isn’t perfect. The very rich should be paying much more. Indeed if multimillionaires just took the federal tax break they got from George W. Bush and paid it in state taxes, there wouldn’t have been a budget crisis in Connecticut at all.
Or in Wisconsin. But the world doesn’t work like that. Connecticut’s state workers had to fight for a decent deal from a governor who went as far as he was willing to go in taxing the rich and sought much of the rest from state workers.
We know that the proposed agreement contains real sacrifices, but we also know that it contains four years of job security, offered nowhere else in the country; and extension of your pension, health and retiree health contract; and has good wage increases in the latter years.
Like Connecticut’s working families, we are outraged by the direction our country has moved in, by how much is asked from middle-class workers and how little from billionaires like the Koches.
There is a long fight ahead before working families in Connecticut, Wisconsin or anywhere in our nation will again be treated the way we ought to be. But we believe a positive result on the proposed contract in Connecticut, just like each Senate district we take back, is one important step in the right direction.
We stand with our brothers and sisters in Connecticut, just as you have stood with us throughout our fight. In solidarity there truly is strength.
In unity, we can truly move forward.
Marty Beil is executive director of Council 24, the Wisconsin State Employees Union. Michael Thomas is president of the SEIU Wisconsin State Council.