Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Empathy Needs To Make A Comeback

The recent dust-up in Wisconsin (and on to Ohio and Indiana) regarding the fundamental right of workers to collective bargain seems to have fired up the left, at long last. Most people today seem ignorant of the history of the labor movement, and forget that safety regulations in the workplace, prohibitions against child labor, the establishment of a minimum wage, overtime pay, and collective bargaining were hard fought victories that were paid for with the blood of average people who had simply had enough. The people who crammed into the Wisconsin State House in Madison drew a proverbial line in the sand and said, "No more without a fight." They, too, had simply had enough. Beyond layoffs and pay cuts, which are part of the bargaining process and accepted as such by the rank-and-file (no strike, soft or otherwise, was called for until collective bargaining itself was threatened).

Republicans, naturally, try to divert attention away from this, and portray public employees as greedy little pigs who refuse to make sacrifices, like everyone else, to balance their state budgets. Teachers are attacked as thugs. Governor Walker of Wisconsin is lauded as a man of reason and honesty, tellin' it like it is. We are simply out of money, they say, and have no other choice. Strangely enough, there is money for tax cuts for the wealthy, but that's a post for another day.

How many people understand that this isn't about employee pension contributions, wage cuts, or any other specific negotiations of any given union? How many people, in a country where only 7% of the population is in a union, even know what is collective bargaining? Do we have to pay for the same real estate twice by retreating and then fighting again to re-achieve these rights?

These questions don't keep me up at night, as bothersome and upsetting as they are. They don't teach labor history in school very much, and as I said, most people simply have no union experience. And this assault was very easy to predict. Republicans have been attacking unions with vigor for decades, and they finally got to the core issue, the very thing that makes a union a union. We can educate people who have forgotten, or never knew, what the workplace was like before organized labor took a stand. Yes, we can do that.

What bothers me, shakes me, keeps me up at night, is the lack of empathy and compassion for those who are scared for their families and themselves. Massive cuts in pay, at a time when the economy is in shambles and the cost of food and gas keeps climbing ever higher, could shatter families. Poverty is a terrible thing. It causes fear, anxiety, depression, and attacks the dignity of people. And who is in the cross-hairs of union busters? Mostly teachers. Working class men and women who have taken on a task of great importance and difficulty. To educate our children and satisfy endlessly concerned parents that this endeavor is taken seriously, attentively and carefully. To work against budget cuts (many teachers buy supplies for their students) and make sure no child falls through the cracks. A teacher influences that fate of every student, every single one. How many of us were inspired by a teacher and guided towards a course of action that has led to a better life? Young people without any sense of self-worth are encouraged to apply to college (I was). Who would envy a teacher's job?

Yet these people are attacked with a hateful vengeance. After a trillion dollars was spent in a historically (for any country) unprecedented bail-out of banks, we watched as massive bonuses were paid out to the very people who caused the banking crisis to begin with. What was their excuse? We need to attract the best people, and we need to pay them a lot of money to keep them, thus bonuses are given, with tax-payer money.

We need to pay well to attract the best people, they said. Consider that. If a job doesn't pay well, what person of worth would take it?

So I ask, who would go into teaching at this point in history? Who would take on the responsibility? The long hours? The expensive education? The very people who take care of and educate our children are attacked with greater ferocity than the crooks at Goldman-Sachs. Millionaire bankers who game the system with complex algorithms in order to make more millions are attacked less passionately than working class teachers.

Have we lost our fucking minds?

How can we argue one minute that we need to pay bankers an absurd amount of money to attract the best and brightest, and then argue moments later that we should nickle and dime teachers, a field that most of us would agree needs to attract the best people. Not only that, but to deform the system permanently so they can never again negotiate a contract.

Even if you disagree with teachers, why is there such anger against them? Is it a symptom of the times? It seems to be. A modicum of understanding for other people shouldn't be such a challenge. That brings to mind another issue, abortion.

Is it so hard to understand that a 14 year old incest victim, carrying a baby, would want to at least have the option of having an abortion? Anti-choice people are rabid, and pretend not to understand that a rational, decent, morally scrupulous human being would want to have an abortion. Where is empathy? Is it so difficult to imagine that your daughter, friend, mother, aunt, sister, et al may want to turn to abortion as a solution?

These two issues, unions and choice, have compelled a lot of strong, ferocious commentary against people. Just people. It's so easy to judge and attack people in the abstract. It's like road rage. Someone cuts you off and you want to shoot them, but if eye contact is made or the two drivers know each other, there is understanding. How else could you explain the anger, the nastiness, regarding these two issues? People who don't know the teachers who are protesting in Madison are quick to call them terrible names and accuse them of every bad thing. Or attack an incest victim who needs help paying for an abortion?

Empathy and compassion need to make a return. Regardless of how you feel intellectually about the pro and con arguments with these issues, it's time to remember our humanity and put the vitriol aside. These are our countrymen and women, our sisters and brothers.

1 comment:

Rosewort said...

There's no button for (love) under this post. But I'm clicking it just the same. Would that this post would be published in the Editorial letters section of the Globe or NY Times.