As the struggle of Wisconsin public sector workers to defend their right to a union and collective bargaining grabbed national attention in recent weeks, a small cohort of anti-union ideologues within the academy has gone into full gear, mounting the platforms provided by corporate wealth to defend the union-busting campaign of Governor Scott Walker and his Tea Party?inspired Republican legislators. Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon more clearly manifest than in a group of four political scientists and economists who write on education: Terry Moe and Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and the far right, corporate-funded Hoover Institution* housed there, Jay Greene at the University of Arkansas?s Walmart-endowed ?Department of Educational Reform,? and Paul Peterson of both Harvard and Hoover. (In recognition of their politically selective approach to educational research, I once christened this group the United Cherry Pickers.)
Peterson recently climbed onto his very own bully pulpit at Education Next, a glossy Hoover Institution?sponsored publication where he is editor-in-chief, Greene is a contributing editor, and Hoxby and Moe sit on the editorial board. The topic of his sermon was ?a fundamental threat to the core values of American democracy.? What constituted such a grave danger to the republic? Simply this: that in order to put a roadblock in the way of the mad rush to pass the Walker-Republican bill stripping Wisconsin public sector workers of their rights to organize into a union and bargain collectively, the Democratic state senators left the state, leaving their house of the legislature without the quorum it needs to pass such a law.
Writing in the season that celebrates the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, Peterson decided to wrap this position in the cloak of the moral authority of our first president. During the American Revolution, he tells us, General Washington had advised the officers of the Continental Army to refrain from taking action over a pay dispute with Congress. Diving deep into the waters of ideologically inspired free association where he so often swims, Peterson declares that the decision of Wisconsin Democratic state senators to absent themselves from the state legislature is the moral equivalent of the aborted protest of Continental Army officers against the pay practices of Congress. Both constitute mortal threats to democratic rule.
So guess who once took the very same ?anti-democratic? action as the Wisconsin Democratic state senators? None other than Abraham Lincoln: it was his use of a quorum rule in an attempt to stop a Democratic legislative majority from killing the state bank that first brought national attention to the lanky state legislator from Illinois. And somehow the republic survived.
It?s not just American political history where Peterson?s intellectual grasp proves embarrassingly thin?more what one would expect from a first year undergraduate than a Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University. In his quest to support Walker?s union busting and to condemn the Democrats who have stood up against it, Peterson adopts the most superficial understanding of democracy?that it is simply the rule of the majority. Employing this definition, he tells us again and again that any attempt to keep the Republican majority of the Wisconsin legislature from passing a law which would eviscerate the rights of public sector workers to a union and collective bargaining is anti-democratic. The majority must rule.
But one does not have to have thought very long or very hard about democracy to understand that it must extend well beyond a purely procedural conception of the rule of the majority. Democracy is as much substantive as it is procedural: there are democratic principles, preeminently liberty and equality, which cannot be put up to a vote of the majority, as they are the necessary foundation of democratic rule. That is why the last great assertion of state rights before the current rise of the Tea Party?the Jim Crow notion that the white majority in southern states had the democratic right to enact legislation that denied fundamental rights to the African-American minority?is commonly understood to be a perversion, not an expression, of democratic rule.
Throughout the democratic world, the rights of labor to organize and bargain collectively are widely recognized as fundamental human rights. As Amnesty International puts it,
Under international law, all workers have a human right to organize and to bargain collectively. These rights are an essential foundation to the realization of other rights, and are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, as well as conventions adopted by the International Labor Organization.
Just as freedom of expression is part of an essential foundation of democratic rule, without which it cannot survive, so is its companion First Amendment right, freedom of association, which includes the rights of labor to organize and bargain collectively. When those rights of labor are diminished or lost, the political voice of working men and women, the ordinary citizenry, is silenced, and only the voice of the wealthy and the powerful, the corporate elite, is heard. In a United States where the eviscerated state of national labor law has made the right to organize and bargain collectively an empty promise for most private sector workers, the elimination of those rights for public sector workers would effectively eliminate the one meaningful check on private, corporate power?organized labor. Given that the Supreme Court has recently overturned even limited checks and balances on the use of corporate power and wealth in the political process with its Citizens United ruling, the potential cumulative effect on the democratic process can only be described as disastrous. To defend the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively is to defend an essential foundation of democratic rule.
In early 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis, Tennessee to support the struggle of a group of public sector workers?the largely African-American sanitation workers?to organize into a union and bargain collectively. It was there, in that struggle, that he fell by an assassin?s bullet. For King, the rights of labor were inseparable from the rights of full citizenship and full human dignity, for African Americans and other people of color, for poor people and for women. He understood that securing the rights of public sector workers to organize and bargain collectively was part of a larger project of fully realizing American democracy and having it live out ?the true meaning of its creed that all men are created equal.? At the core of King?s life and his work, up to its last moments, was the Gandhian maxim, ?speak truth to power.? Those academics who are publicists and advocates for the reversal of the rights for which King fought are guided by a different maxim: ?speak untruth on behalf of corporate power.?
* Among the corporate funders of the Hoover Institution are Walmart (Walton Foundation), Exxon, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Archer Daniels Midland, Procter & Gamble, Boeing-McDonnell, Rockwell International, Merrill Lynch, and J. P. Morgan. High profile far-right foundation supporters include Scaife, Bradley, and Olin.