McGrath: Mutiny in Madison: Walker’s Pyrrhic victory
By David McGrath email@example.com July 13, 2012 8:04PM
Updated: August 17, 2012 6:45AM
“Mutiny on the Bounty” was one of my all-time favorite books in high school. Love of the sea and my lifelong dream of some day visiting Tahiti likely were inspired by the classic novel based on an 18th century historical event involving British first mate Fletcher Christian leading mutineers in overthrowing the sadistic Captain Bligh to take command of the HMS Bounty.
One of the main reasons the book endures is its hard-to-accept, hard-to-forget ending. Rather than a happy-ever-after cliché, or a good triumphs over evil moral, the book concludes with the surprising vindication of the hated Bligh and the criminal conviction of the sailors who dared stand up to him.
That’s the same kind of hangover many were left with following the Wisconsin recall election last month. Rather than being evicted from the governor’s mansion in only the third recall attempt in U.S. history, Scott Walker survived a statewide mutiny by defeating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by a margin of 53 to 46 percent.
And the many thousands of mutineers — including protesters who had earlier occupied the Capitol building in Madison, volunteers who collected petition signatures and the workers who felt betrayed after voting for him the first time — still find themselves punished by legislation that denies them their collective bargaining rights.
Walker supporters proclaimed the election results as a great victory as well as a mandate for targeting organized labor across the country. But they forgot that this was not a conventional election to choose a governor, but a do-over necessary for a sitting governor to save his skin.
It’s not unlike when a student has to overcome an F grade with a make-up exam. His passing essentially constitutes a grade of D, he hardly is vaulted to the head of the class and he certainly doesn’t have a mandate to continue with similar behavior.
Back in Portsmouth, England, during the court martial of the Bounty mutineers, Captain Bligh was not exonerated of wrongdoing. But even as a court acknowledged his violent and destructive acts, it had to rule against the mutineers to avoid setting a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize the traditions and framework of the Royal Navy and the monarchy itself.
Similarly, Wisconsin’s election did not exonerate Walker of his treachery in having originally hidden from voters his intentions to attack labor. Exit polls showed that many citizens voted against the recall not because they sympathized with the governor but because they objected to the recall itself as being an anomaly that upset the natural order of things — an overreaction to maneuvers by Walker that should have been opposed through conventional means.
So where does that leave Wisconsin and the rest of the country?
Yes, Walker gets to stay in Madison for at least two more years. But the fight for workers’ benefits and rights is not only not over, it really has just begun.
On Walker’s side, money pumped into Wisconsin from anti-labor and Tea Party groups out of state, at a rate that gave him three times as much as his opponent, paid for a divide-and-conquer advertising campaign to convince Wisconsin’s average joes that teachers and health care workers were the ones robbing their prosperity.
Union-busting billionaires Charles and David Koch financed political action committees that tried to convince a small-town voter, for example, who gets by working one shift at the lumber yard and another at Wal-Mart, that taking away a teacher’s right to ask for a raise would somehow improve his plight.
These PACs tried to harness such voters’ resentment but at the cost of their best interest because the only thing that has ever raised a nonunion worker’s wage or his standard of living has been the influence of labor unions.
On labor’s side, workers must make it clear to the electorate by November that it’s not the local kindergarten teacher who’s to blame for the country’s financial woes. The greed and recklessness of institutions like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and AIG ravaged pension funds and wrecked the economy, which drained tax bases and busted state budgets.
So workers must fight for tighter regulation of these companies, which so far have been shielded from reform by their lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and their cohorts like Walker — who scapegoat underwater homeowners, public workers, retirees and labor unions while giving bailouts and tax breaks to the corporate chiefs responsible for the recession.
The U.S. has prided itself as a nation in which workers have had the right to speak, to assemble, to bargain for the best price to pay or the best wage to earn. Any threat to the contrary is a threat to us all.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage and a past member of the United Retail Workers Union, Chicago Teachers Union and National Education Association.