Asking the Wrong Question

(Editor’s Note: This is a slightly updated version of something posted as a Facebook note several years ago.)

Wisconsin’s labor issues disturb me.

If this were to come to Minnesota (and it probably will), I would have a very hard time deciding what to do. Certainly, my right to bargain collectively is important to me. But it is not as important as my responsibility to help my students grow as learners and individuals? How can I fight for my own rights at the expense of my students’ right to an education? The fact is that I don’t know what I believe on this issue.

At first glance, the central issue seems to be unions and collective bargaining. And it is. But I don’t think I’d be writing this if it were a simple matter of workers vs. business owners. That’s understandable. That’s capitalism. That’s life. I’d be over it in a heartbeat.

What I can’t understand is why non-union workers are as hostile as they are towards all union employees. There certainly are lazy union workers that should be replaced, but are kept in place by rules and procedures established by collective bargaining agreements. But that has nothing to do with the teacher’s union. I am not shipping your jobs overseas. I’m not depressing your wages so they don’t keep up with the cost of living. The private-sector unions that made life tough for the “working man” no longer exist. Why go after people who have done no harm?

It seems like basic jealousy. People are upset that they work for greedy assholes who don’t care about their employees. “Teachers are public employees, so why should they have the right to bargain collectively when I do not?” people ask themselves, effectively becoming the terrible boss they hate.

Of course, the central issue could be something much worse. Wisconsin, and America for that matter, is missing the point. We ask “Why should union workers be treated better than everyone else?”

We should be asking, “Why doesn’t everyone have the right to negotiate their wages and benefits?” We should be asking, “Why do we get upset when unions protest, but not when businesses make record profits while refusing to offer their employees a simple cost of living wage increase?”

This goes beyond unions. This goes beyond collective bargaining. This goes beyond teaching. This is about human nature. If we are unhappy, why do we focus on making everyone else as miserable as we are instead of working to make ourselves as happy as everyone else?

Given the options, I hope it’s jealousy. I don’t like the implications if it’s not.

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