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Shifting grounds.

The comment of the weekend was brought to you by dotCommonweal contributor unagidon, who helpfully outlined the evolution of the Right's recent antiunion memes. Be sure to read the whole thing, and the thread where it was posted.

The creation of memes in our current politics is an interesting one because it fits so well with communication via the Internet.Lets review. This all started in Wisconsin with a governor saying that it was essential to break public sector unions (and not just the teachers union) in order to deal with a budget deficit. This was the original story; that it was about the deficit. There was a great deal of push-back with this, both locally and nationally. So the good reason to break the unions started to change. We have seen a number of these floated in these discussions here. Shall I list some of them?1. We have been told that unions are a means to funnel public tax dollars into politicians pockets, because unions demand dues which come from tax paid salaries, then the union then uses some to support their favorite politicians. This failed to become a meme when it was pointed out that, because union members are paying dues out of their own pockets, the implication is that tax payers have some kind of right to tell public sector workers what to do with their own money.2. Public sector unions, because they amount to monopolies hold the public hostage with their ability to strike. This failed to become a meme when the public sector unions didnt use this supposed massive power of theirs to fend off the governor of Wisconsin. If they could extort their wages from the tax payer by striking, they why arent they extorting their very existence?3. The above attempt at a meme broke into two more memes:a. Unions in general are too strong in the United States andb. Unions are not necessary any more in the United States because hardly anyone is in them any more any way.I have seen both of these theories, which contradict each other, being used by people even here in the same post.4. Union workers use their power to extort higher than market rate salaries. This didnt turn into a meme, because the general public thinks that some public workers (like police and firemen) hardly make enough now. So this meme morphed so that it was specifically the teachers who make too much. Why pick on the teachers? Because there is a common misconception in the general public that being a teacher doesnt require a lot of qualifications. First, the level of education of teachers in our system is similar to the general level of education of much of the population, many of whom make less than teachers. Second, teachers are teaching young people. So how hard can third grade math be? Third, anyone with a child is going to have contact with teachers. This creates the additional element of people having a hard time seeing their (tax) money go to pay people who appear to be having an easier time then the people paying them through taxes. But this didnt turn into a meme either, because a) not all the teachers make the big bucks b) lots of people have teachers in their families and c) lots of people also think that teachers salaries are not in fact too high.5. The salary thing did for a while look like it was going to be a good meme, especially when it was combined in one of its variants, then went something like Teaching is a calling and teachers are public servants. They teach because they love to. Why should we have to pay them too?. It fit in with the governor of Wisconsins own meme of defending the tax payer against greedy union worker. There were lots of people who think that they could teach if they really wanted to, so why should teachers get what they dont? And, very importantly, teachers teach children. So finding something wrong can be about saving the children. And excellent element for a meme, because it puts opponents in the position of having to attack children. And what kind of evil people do that? The problem was, the connection between teachers and salaries is a tax and wage issue, not a save the children issue. Children arent directly affected by how much their teachers make. At least not in the way that.6. hiring practices do. So this became the meme. There are so many anecdotes on the Internet about bad teachers not being fired (and in fact, everyone can probably recount some personal anecdote about this). Their job protections come from the unions. It was hard to criticize this meme, because the critic could easily be pushed back into a defensive position. (So you approve of retaining bad teachers? So you are willing to sacrifice the precious resource of our young helpless children just to protect a greedy corrupt union?) Another plus for well read partisans is that the unfire-able bad teacher problem has been going on for years, ever since NCLB started to fail all over the place. This gives the meme depth, as though it is part of a bigger ideological struggle between concerned conservatives and corrupt labor lovin liberals. So this meme seems to be sticking. It had a little head, a little heart, and it makes the people who might have seem greedy and envious themselves when they were pushing the other memes now sound like righteous child defenders. Amen.A meme is a pre-packaged cultural snippet that seems very clear and self contained. It looks black and white and it makes the other side look vicious, greedy, and stupid. Its function is to translate a complex situation into a pseudo-moral situation for the purposes of political manipulation. Both the right and the left use them and they are particularly common in religious discussions. They have become especially popular with the rise of the internet because they are so short that they can even be tweeted and they seem so complete that a person who uses them can sound like he knows what he is talking about. But they are a scourge that makes us ever more stupid every time we use them.

We've just published unagidon'sWeb-only article that asks, Why are public-sector unions so different? (Hint: they're not.) Don't miss it.

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A terrific post!We need one on "memes" in the Church as well.

"If some public-sector workers appear to have excellent benefits, you can bet they had to organize to get them in the first place. Once they lose their right to collective bargaining, those benefits wont last long."Very fine article, Unagidon. I agree with the first sentence I've pasted here. The second is a rather breathtaking prediction for which no evidence is brought forward. I'm wondering if any exists. My own opinion is that wages (which includes benefits such as healthcare benefits and retirement) are "sticky downward"; once won, it is difficult for them to deteriorate materially.The way the labor market corrects above-market wages in a union shop is an incredibly lengthy and painful process for all concerned: over time, the employer loses market share to competitors who aren't saddled with an above-market wage structure. As the employer shrinks, it lays off workers in order to protect the wages of more senior union members. Given a long enough time horizon, the firm will go out of business and all of the union jobs will cease to exist. In the end, a very wide population: the workers, the owners and investors, the firm's customers, its suppliers, and the families and community that relied on it, all lose.Cf. the steel industry in the US for an example. The unionized portion of the auto assembly industry in the US hasn't made it all the way through the process, and the Obama Administration's bailout of two of the three firms has delayed the inevitable, but it is pretty far along the path.We don't know yet how the endgame plays out in the public sector, but we will learn by observing the experimentation in states that are saddled with enormous debt. One possibility is bankruptcy court, in which case, I believe, union protections are diminished. Another is what is being pursued in Wisconsin and, with variations, in other states: confront the unions to get them to accept lesser wages or forgo other perks and amenities. A third possibility is what is being pursued by more union-friendly (and -supported) administrations in California, Illinois and New York - essentially, raise taxes on all citizens in order to keep union packages intact. The second and third possibilities are vulnerable to political correction: the administrations that are proposing them can be removed by voters in the next election. So, in a sense, the people can choose which course they prefer. The people will ultimately determine whether or not the relationship between their elected governments and public sector unions are in balance.What seems to be beyond the scope of this article, but which I'd like to see addressed, by Commonweal or elsewhere, is whether it is just and right for the people - the voters - to determine the nature and extent of the government-union relationship. That is precisely what is happening in Wisconsin: the administration elected by the people is executing the program it promised during the election campaign (and against which the public unions unsuccessfully campaigned). In a conflict between citizens and unions, whose rights prevail?

What Bob Nunz said!

Jim P. "the administration elected by the people is executing the program it promised during the election campaign (and against which the public unions unsuccessfully campaigned). 'I asked on other posts if anyone has a source showing that Gov. Walker campaigned on ending collective bargaining for public worker unions. Not controlling worker costs but ending collective bargaining. Any sources?

"As the employer shrinks, it lays off workers in order to protect the wages of more senior union members. Given a long enough time horizon, the firm will"Jim P. --Where is your data for this claim? There are unions which have been around for generations.You seem to view the economic system as a sort of set of absolutes in which certain variables don't change in response to changes in other variables. This does seem to allow for some long term predictability, but, unfortunately, there is no such thing as long term predictability in economics. An economic system is like baseball. There are some constants, e.g., the bases are always a certain distance apart. But that won't tell you who makes it to home plate or how many times. There are some unions that have been around for generations. And it looks like Ford at least will be too. You can't eliminate the action of the government in all these situations as part of the plot, It too is a player if we choose it to be, and some of us think that's a very good thing, or can be.

OOOPS --- the end was left out: Should be:"As the employer shrinks, it lays off workers in order to protect the wages of more senior union members. Given a long enough time horizon, the firm will go out of business and all of the union jobs will cease to exist."

Ann, I provided the example of the US steel industry. There are tens of thousands of jobs in the Chicago area that no longer exist because firms here have exited the business, either completely or have moved their production elsewhere.Economic systems are systems of human behavior. As such, they are never completely predictable, yet they are governed by rules (laws) of human nature and human behavior that do generally apply and provide good predictive guidelines. "People are greedy", "People are short-sighted", "People act on available information" - these are truths of human nature that explain economic behavior. We ignore human behavior at our peril. It would be good for unions and their members if employers didn't move production offshore, or if customers didn't drop US-based vendors in favor of foreign vendors with lower wage structures and thus lower prices, but there are compelling human motives that make these things happen. This is why union representation of the US work force has shrunk from 36% to about 1/3 of that amount - and this despite the robust growth of union representation in the public sector - in the space of about two generations. The economic ground has shifted under their feet.

"I asked on other posts if anyone has a source showing that Gov. Walker campaigned on ending collective bargaining for public worker unions. Not controlling worker costs but ending collective bargaining. Any sources?"Hi, Ed, here is some campaign boilerplate/blather that set the stage for what is now transpiring: http://www.scottwalker.org/issues/government-reformUnions had no doubt as to what this all meant - not only because they can read the code as well as the next person, but because Walker already had a track record for it as county executive of Milwaukee County. Unions weren't caught napping. They campaigned vigorously for his opponent.

Today's political cartoon in the NM paper:-panel 1 -soda bottle:"COKE the soft drink"panel 2 -black lumps:"COKE the derivative of coal"panel 3: -white powder: "COKE, cocaine"final panel :two pudgy middle age dwhite guys: "KOCH, the brothers; owners of a poodle named Walker in Wisconsin"

"This is why union representation of the US work force has shrunk from 36% to about 1/3 of that amount ..."Jim,The same way can apply to private corporations. Yet they have not shrunk. Secondly, the American middle class thought they had graduated to a place where they could expect fair treatment and stopped supporting unions. Further it is easier to reconstruct a company and lay off people than it is to dismantle an education system which covers the whole town, city or state. Governors, like the one in Wisconsin, are beholden to the 5% who have amassed riches and control. Perhaps after this the middle class will get it. The wealthy have always depended on the middle class to blame the poor rather than the unfair system. The irony is the Governor is not going after the police and fire forces which have the fattest salaries and pensions. After all who would pursue the fleeing democrats?

Jim. P. as I expected your citation of Walkers campaign platform not only does not mention ending collective bargaining and it does not even mention downsizing union wages and benefits. We all know that union has agreed to cuts in benefits and wage increases.You claim that 'it's in code'.. how silly! Let me state without 'code', Walker will lose and so will the Repub. TP agenda nationally.

Jim: For me, even if a majority of the people wanted to eliminate unions, that still wouldn't make it right. But there is a Rasmussen poll that shows a majority of Wisconsin residents in fact support the workers collective bargaining rights. (And interestingly, of those with children in the public school system, 58% think its good that most teachers are in a union). So, Governor Walker is NOT carrying out the will of the people in his current effortshttp://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_state_su...

Irene --Thanks for the figures. That parents strongly support the teachers' union is most significant. According to the Walkerites the very opposite should be true. Nothing like word from the trenches.

Irene - if those numbers are maintained, then presumably he will lose the next election.Ed - you're welcome not to believe me. I don't live in Wisconsin, just reporting what I've read.

I'm not sure I understand what are (is) a "meme." I'm not really convinced it's all that important.This is what I know: I grew up in a union family. If it hadn't been for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the United Mine Workers and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, my family would have starved to death in the last century.Because of the prosperity and protections that unions afforded my family, I personally have received a fabulous education that allows me today to enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle and professional life.Despite being widowed when my siblings and I were teenagers, my mother was able to pay-off our modest home, educate her children (in Catholic schools no less!), and enjoyed healthcare insurance until she died. All of this because of benefits fought for by unions contained within the Railroad Retirement Act passed under the New Deal in 1934.Starting when Ronald Reagan was their front man, corporate goons have been waging war on the middle class with growing intensity for the past thirty years. Scott Walker in Wisconsin is just the latest of their henchmen to attempt to drive a dagger through the heart of the working and middle classes with his shameless attempt to neuter public worker unions by denying them collective bargaining rights.After their gambling casino on Wall Street went belly-up, bringing the American economy to its knees, holding a gun to the heads of the American middle and working classes, financial and corporate interests insisted that their profits be "privatized" while their loses were "socialized," leaving the American people in a deep financial hole, to dig out of on our own.To paraphrase Michael Moore, AMERICA IS BROKE! It's a LIE! It's just that the monied elites and corporate oligarchs are not paying their fair share.And the sounds coming out of Wisconsin indicate middle and working class people have finally caught on to the scam. And we have had enough!There is nothing wrong with Social Security that taxing incomes (means testing) over $100,000 wont cure.Restore the pre-Reagan tax rates and our deficits will abate to normal levels.Reinstitute tariffs, as was the policy starting with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton until Reagan, which built the richest economy the world has ever known, so that countries like China are no longer eating our lunch. Let's protect the life and work of Americans first.The American economy should undergo a green transformation: broader and deeper education for everyone, greater innovation, cleaner technology.And no more blood for oil! (And, while we're at it, all the top income brackets who made out like bandits under G. W. Bush, should pay a surtax to pay off the debt from Iraq and Afghanistan).Let's begin the resurgence of the middle and working classes: RECALL the corporate stooges starting with Gov. Scott Walker. Sorry, I don't know what a "meme" is!

I mistyped: America is NOT broke!

I mistyped: America being broke is a lie!Sorry for the edits.

Jim j. ==What you said, except what you said about tariffs.Here are some definitions of "meme". It is really a very useful concept, I find.Macmillan dictionary: noun: a cultural unit (an idea or value or pattern of behavior) that is passed from one generation to another by nongenetic means (as by imitation) ("Memes are the cultrual counterpart of genes")Miriam Webster: an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a cultureWebster's a unit of cultural information, as a concept, belief, or practice, that spreads from person to person in a way analogous to the transmission of genes.

P. S. Here's a really great site. You can look up a word or phrase and it will give you dozens of definitions from a treasure trove of different dictionaries.http://www.yourdictionary.com/meme

Jim P. =Yes, you provided one example of a union that eventually failed. But your claim is about all (or most?) unions. I think the facts are on my side.You say that, "Economic systems are systems of human behavior. As such, they are never completely predictable, yet they are governed by rules (laws) of human nature and human behavior that do generally apply and provide good predictive guidelines. People are greedy, People are short-sighted, People act on available information"But those are generalizations that are oversimplifications. They aren't "laws" because there are too many exceptions, and as long as we have free will they aren[t going to be laws.To blame the very nature of unions themselves on the plight of union members and the public, especially with respect to the schools, is to oversimplify the forces operating in the economic system and the school system. You yourself say that "the ground has shifted", including strong forces from outside of our govermental and economic systems. To reduce our problem to one intrinsic factor is just too simple.

We are often warned about the allegedly insidious phenomenon of creeping infallibility. By the same token, the multiplication of rights may also be something to worry about. If government workers have collective bargaining rights, is it also the case that citizens have equally compelling rights which at least occasionally may be in conflict with public unions? Or should we limit the scope of democratic government and hand over decisions to lawyers, courts and arbitrators. For that matter, as long as we are attributing rights to groups, why not recognized the rights of merchants to form cartels (to avoid unnecessary and wasteful competition and to protect consumers interests, of course). The merchant guilds of old are an attractive model to many. After we have organized all possible groups and given them their rights we can then address the problem of the long-term unemployed in a sinking economy.

Bob N. --What would you say are some of the memes in the Catholic Church?

The other thing I was wondering about, people like to make a distinction that for some reason public workers don't need to organize because their "boss" is the taxpayer. I don't really see that, but if the "taxpayer-bosses" are ready to cut workers pay and benefits just to save a couple of bucks in their annual taxes, how does that make them different from any other boss who puts financial self-interest ahead of the well-being of the workers? In that case, seems like public workers have just as much reason to organize as coalminers and farmworkers.

"Yes, you provided one example of a union that eventually failed"Ann - I provided an example of an entire *industry* (at least in the US) that failed.

Hi AnnHow about starting with "distinctive Catholicism" or "Muscular or Robust Christianity (Catholicism)"?Or various forms of continuation of VII?

"Yes, you provided one example of a union that eventually failedAnn I provided an example of an entire *industry* (at least in the US) that failed."So what? What about all the other industries -- and their unions -- that did not go under? The point was that you said according to your theory they would *all* fail.

Bob N. --I think I might understand "distinctive Catholicism", but I"m not sure. It seems to be a new phrase for (self-claimed) "orthodox Catholicism". But I don't understand "Muscular Christianity" at all.The thing about memes is that, like genes, you don't find all memes in all segments of a culture. So even within a broad culture people can be alienated from each other because, say, ethnic subcultures are very different in some ways. There are different sorts of memes. Paczkis and donuts, for instance. Some are found among children. It used to be that many, many children in New Orleans believed that there were packs of wild dogs in City Park. Sort of like the Yetti in the Himalayas, I guess, or the loup-garous in France. There are memes that link religion and politics, too. In south Louisiana some people used to have little shrines to Huey Long in their houses, complete with a picture of him and a votive candle in front of it.By the way, the concept of a meme and the word for it were invented rather recently by that great geneticist -- and atheist, Richard Dawkins, but that doesn't stop the concept from being a very useful one. It helps to explain how we establish our in-groups and out-groups, groups both large and small.

"The other thing I was wondering about, people like to make a distinction that for some reason public workers dont need to organize because their boss is the taxpayer. I dont really see that, but if the taxpayer-bosses are ready to cut workers pay and benefits just to save a couple of bucks in their annual taxes, how does that make them different from any other boss who puts financial self-interest ahead of the well-being of the workers? In that case, seems like public workers have just as much reason to organize as coalminers and farmworkers."Hi, Irene, shouldn't government operate in the interest of the taxpayers and other citizens? In other words, isn't government of the people, by the people, for the people?If government operates in the interest of, say, KBR or Blackwater, instead of the interest of the people, wouldn't we rightly object that a special interest group is distorting or corrupting for its own ends government's legitimate function?For purposes of this discussion, public-sector unions look, walk and quack an awful lot like a special interest group. They donate money to politicians and other political organizations like think tanks; they lobby; they do whatever they legally can to influence government to operate in their interest.

"Hi, Irene, shouldnt government operate in the interest of the taxpayers and other citizens?"Yes, but, "operating in the interest of the taxpayers" is not synonymous with "doing the right thing". The interest of the taxpayers might be to try to get the desired services by paying as little as possible for them. A boss is a boss is a boss, whether the boss is the State of Wisconsin or Massey Energy. I believe in either case, workers have a right to organize themselves to fight for better wages and working conditions then the boss might agree to on its own steam. But, Jim, your original question was "In a conflict between citizens and unions, whose rights prevail?". No such conflict exists in this case. A clear majority of citizens in Wisconsin support the workers bargaining rights; so it is Governor Walker, not the unions, who is going against the will of the people there.

Irene - if a poll next month shows that a clear minority of the citizens of Wisconsin support the workers' bargaining rights, does that mean the Governor Walker is vindicated?The only poll that counts in politics is the one that counts votes. The unions had their shot at Governor Walker last November and failed to make their case. Presumably they'll get another shot in four years.

"A boss is a boss is a boss, whether the boss is the State of Wisconsin or Massey Energy. I believe in either case, workers have a right to organize themselves to fight for better wages and working conditions then the boss might agree to on its own steam."Actually, the State of Wisconsin is not, in most cases, the boss. That misunderstanding (or deception) is a big part of the general confusion on what is going on there.

I wrote: "Actually, the State of Wisconsin is not, in most cases, the boss. That misunderstanding (or deception) is a big part of the general confusion on what is going on there."I meant to add: the 'boss' in most cases is the local government entity (the school board, the municipality, the county agency) with which the local bargaining unit collectively bargains.The state's role is to determine, via state laws and regulations, what is in-scope or out-of-scope for collective bargaining. For some perspective, teachers' unions, like other special interest groups, have gone to state houses many times over the years to tinker with those scopes in ways that favor them. This is why the "concessions" by state labor leaders to the governor's wage, pension and healthcare demands aren't worth the air expended from their lungs to make them. Public unions don't determine those matters at a state level. They're determined individually, local by local and municipality by municipality.

Heres a little muscular Christianity for you: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-LjvVcxYgog4/TWpt_qzZFdI/AAAAAAAAFK8/s... that doesnt lead you to the cartoon in question, go to this blogsite and you should be able to see it: http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2011/02/more-on-newt.html

Thanks, Jimmy Mac. I get it. I wonder why people conflate politics and religion? Maybe it's that inclination to heroes again. People who are both good and very decisive are a twofer, I suppose. That's certainly the image Reagan projected.

Not sure if anyone is still reading here, but Wisconsin is now on the move: the Wisconsin Senate has passed the non-appropriations part of the bill, including the part that curtails most collective-bargaining rights for public employees. The Assembly is expected to follow suit, perhaps as early as today.Ohio is not far behind.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870462910457619100389001401...