Schools and Politics: Labor, Capital, and the Public Good

My daughter has given me for Christmas a history of the American labor movement by Philip Dray, There is Power in a Union. My reading of Dray has caused me to reflect on struggles within American politics and culture that serve as back drop to the funding of schools. So please bear with me here through my argument.

I begin reading shortly after the Wisconsin Republican governor Scott Walker and the legislature, also in Republican control, begin their effort to weaken both the power and secondarily the bargaining power of public unions, in the process laying the blame for the state’s fiscal difficulties on the allegedly intemperate pension contracts wrung from the state in previous years of collective bargaining.

Contrary to Walker’s claims, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, as reported by Kevin G. Hall of McClatchy Newspapers (Seattle Times, March 8, 2011), “Pension contributions from state and local employers aren’t blowing up budgets.”  To further quote Hall:


“If assets in state and local pension plans were frozen tomorrow and there was no more growth in investment returns, Boston College researchers project there would still be enough money in most state plans to pay benefits for years to come.”


Moreover, “government pension funds are not broke.” They are currently underfunded for the same reason all investment funds are down, because the stock market has been down, and like private sector investment funds, are back on the upswing “as the rising tide of Wall Street lifts all boats.” And some further telling detail:

“On average, with the assets on hand today, plans are able to pay annual benefits at their current level for another 13 years. This assumes, pessimistically, that plans make no future pension contributions and there is no growth in assets.” The same figure for Wisconsin, cited by Hall, is 18 years.


So apparently we have in the voice of Governor Walker’s machinations some significant hyperbole. What demon do these public unions represent to so thoroughly have invited this assault?

It is to this query that the history of American labor provides context. In fact the struggle has been going on for well over a century. The history of the latter half of the 19th century is replete with dramatic stories of the struggle of labor to earn both humane hours and then a decent wage, and of management, capital and their political allies fighting to retain their fiscal and political dominance. Blood, violence, and ruthlessness characterize the stories of the Homestead/Carnegie strike, the Haymarket bombing, and the quixotic marches of the unemployed on Washington, D.C., inspired by Jacob Coxey, whose statement to reporters on the Capitol lawn before he was arrested echoes sentiments fresh today. April 30, 1894 is the date –


“Up these (Capitol) steps the lobbyists of trusts and corporations have passed unchallenged on their way to the committee rooms, access to which we, the representatives of the toiling wealth producers, have been denied. We stand here today in behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been un-responded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative labor have been taken away from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers.” (Dray, as cited above, pg. 192)


In this context I wonder about the influence of the billionaire Koch brothers, financiers and capitalists, heavy contributors to Wisconsin Republican politics and the Scott Walker campaign in particular, with the public union pension funds a target. What is the bottom line motive? Do they truly see demons in public union pensions that the facts do not support? It is true that the persistent Republican cries of “socialism”, however demagogical and cynical, are believed naively by targets among the public. Perhaps this is true of Walker and the Kochs, though they are more likely to be the demagogues and the cynics. Is it as simple as power looking for a scapegoat upon which to propel power’s own fortunes? Possible factor.

But sift through the layers of political rhetoric and backpedalling by the unions, and we have the elements of Phillip Dray’s thesis. It is the struggle between capital and labor. Capital whose raison d’etre is to maximize profit, which requires a minimum of wages and a low profile tax burden.  Here I think we have it. It is not that public pensions undermine the stability of Wisconsin’s fiscal house, nor that of other states, but that all taxes paid undercut profits, which is the task of capital to protect. Though there are those who sincerely if sometimes misguidedly fear that any government is oversized, this movement has been hijacked by capital interests, as a way to lower taxes and maximize profit.

Well, it’s logical. Capitalism is neither a good nor an evil. It’s a system of organization of capital, labor and products which has its strengths and its pitfalls, and needs the harnessing of government to protect it from itself, as much as to protect the public.

So we come to where the history of labor and contemporary politics intersect with the discussion of schools and culture. If capital is to fight taxes for public pensions, it is also going to fight taxes for public schools. Never mind that the buying power of public workers purchases the goods and services that produce capital profits. Never mind that effective schools would provide the skilled talent for which the American economy is desperate. In both cases it is the history of American capital to get as much as possible out of as little as can be invested, and seems to have trouble seeing its own long term best interests, with notable and historic exceptions. Admittedly, short term vision is a more generalized American illness.

In this reality is a case for the common good, and for good government, which can diverge from that of the individual, including the individual capitalist, in critical dimensions.

All of  which brings me back to the funding for schools and my argument that, absent some kind of near term cultural revolution, targeted increases in funding are necessary to simulate the kind of environment in which kids can be re-acculturated into accountability, purposeful behavior, and the meeting of standards. (See earlier post “Schools and Culture: The Politics are Another Story”)

These meditations on the history of labor and capital, and political feints in Wisconsin that cast public pensions as the enemy of the public good leave me pensive. While clearly our students need cultural change, we also as a culture need a change that is somehow not so suspicious of collective action, not so wholeheartedly in thrall of the lonely cowboy hero and the archetypal robber baron, not so ready to knee jerk to the negative when the public good calls out for public expenditure, and be ready, however reluctantly, to pay taxes to support that public good. I suspect the future of our children and the success of our schools depends on it.


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