A Plague on Us All

     Here is a brief history of the labor law dispute in Wisconsin.
     And in Idaho, Tennessee and Utah.
     And Colorado and Ohio, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Washington, Alaska and Arizona – all of which are considering union-busting legislation similar to Wisconsin’s.
     Here is the history:
     When the Black Death began devastating England in 1348, killing one-third of the population – killing three-quarters of the people in some places – it began the island’s transformation from a medieval to a modern economy.
     Peasants’ labor suddenly became more valuable. They demanded money for their work – not just a share of the crop.
     In response, “the king ordered that in every county in the kingdom, reapers and other labourers should not receive more than they were accustomed to receive [before the plague], and he renewed this statute from time to time.”
     The citation, in modernized spelling, is from Henry Knighton’s chronicle of the plague. Knighton, canon of Leicester, wrote his history in the 1390s.
     Knighton continued: “The labourers, however, were so arrogant and hostile that they did not heed the king’s command, but if anyone wished to hire them, he had to pay them what they wanted, and either lose his fruit and crops or satisfy the arrogant and guilty desire of the labourers.”
     Imagine that. Workers had “arrogant and guilty” desires to be paid.
     “When it was made known to the king that [the upper classes] did not obey his mandate, and had paid higher wages to the labourers, he imposed heavy fines on the abbots, the priors, the great lords and the lesser ones … then the king had many labourers arrested, and put them in prison. … It was done in like manner concerning other artisans in towns and villages.”
     I have not seen any other document, ancient or modern, that so eloquently expresses the contempt that the ruling class holds for workers, and for unions.
     I have not seen any other document that demonstrates so well what I have contended for years: that today’s Republican Party is medieval in every sense, legally, socially, and – though the word leaves a bad taste in my mouth – morally.
     Wisconsin’s so-called “Budget Repair Bill” makes it a crime for public schoolteachers to bargain collectively.
     The Republican Party and Gov. Scott Walker shoved the bill through without a quorum on the legal fiction that a budget bill will have no fiscal impact.
     The law will be upheld by a Republican state Supreme Court. It has been imitated by more than a dozen Legislatures around the country: lawmaking bodies controlled by vicious Republicans and acceded to by cowardly Democrats.
     It boggles my mind that the American public is falling for this.
     Most of us think fondly of at least one or two public schoolteachers.
     Public schoolteachers sacrifice a lot to teach – primarily their free time, and a shot at wealth. In exchange, they get decent vacations and benefits – benefits that are average for all workers in Europe.
     Teachers unions got them those benefits.
     I’m not a big fan of teachers’ unions. I taught in public high schools for nine years and was a union member. The union treated me like a used Kleenex. It abandoned me and five other teachers after a vindictive business manager fired us from a tiny school district in rural Arizona. The union abandoned us because we were unimportant – in a small district far away.
     We kept our jobs because we were fired illegally and a lawyer represented us pro bono.
     But the uselessness of the teachers union, in that case, has nothing to do with whether public schoolteachers should be made criminals for joining a union.
     I earned less than $11,000 a year then for teaching full-time, and I had two master’s degrees, in subjects I taught. I was so poor that I remember a time I could not afford to buy pepper. Without the benefits the union had fought for, it wouldn’t have been worthwhile to teach at all.
     Republican lawmakers and the people who vote for them are entitled to their medieval thoughts about religion, and science, and torture, and labor rights, if that’s what makes them happy.
     But I do not believe it’s good for anyone to make medieval practices the law of the land – or the law of even a state.

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