The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.
I’m not very, whaddyacallit, hip. I’ll give you a second to regain your composure from the shock, but it’s true. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I finally got to the end of "The Sopranos," a TV program that began airing before some of the students I teach were even born.
In the last couple of seasons, Edie Falco's Carmela Soprano character is building a house with her father, a long-in-the-tooth contractor with many years’ experience building houses. At one point, the city building inspector shows up to check the framing and demands it all be torn down. It turns out this very experienced builder was using insufficiently strong lumber to frame the house.
"I know what I'm doing!" Carmela’s father shouted. "This will work just fine!" This being "The Sopranos," eventually the local inspector's office is, shall we say, convinced to approve the house. But in the final few episodes of the season, Carmela can’t sleep worrying that the house will collapse in a storm, killing the nice family who bought the place, because she knows the work was shoddy and cheap.
This all happens on a fictional TV show, sure. But there’s a lesson in there for all of us: Don't do things on the cheap just because you think you know better and can get away with it. The rules are in place for a reason, and you skirt them – or change them – at your peril.
That lesson is lost on Wisconsin's Republican leadership and legislators, unfortunately, as they pursue an explicit policy of doing just that: trying to do things on the cheap. Almost every controversial change in state law since 2011, when Governor Scott Walker was sworn in with a fully Republican legislature behind him, has been designed to chase cheap labor at the expense of the working men and women of Wisconsin.
Cheap-labor conservatism has a long and ugly history here in these United States, going back to the first fights for unions 100 years ago, to the fights against child labor, even to abolition, since slavery is perhaps the cheapest labor of all. Those in, and those who represent the interests of, the monied classes understand very well that the way the rich get richer is through the exploitation of labor. Every cent you pay to workers – or their pensions, or their health care – is a cent you don’t pocket for yourself.
The Republican Party has been dominated by cheap-labor conservatives for decades – though, of course, Democrats are also all too happy take campaign cash from the one percent and support policies that have dramatically affected income inequality in the last 40 years, from tax law that favors shareholders over workers to "free trade" agreements like the one in the news recently.
But the big offenders are the GOP, and you can just go back through the last five years of Wisconsin lawmaking and see the agenda laid plain. It started with Walker’s signature Act 10, which made the labor of public school workers a lot cheaper, and kept going from there.
More recently, we saw the passage of right to work – or "right to freeload," as I call it – which not only makes labor cheaper for Wisconsin employees, but also means employers will pay less attention to (and less money for) worker safety without a strong union watchdog.
And then there are items large and small in the state budget currently under consideration by the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. The small things include changes to the state’s worker’s compensation system that will probably make it harder for workers to win claims, and changes in which doctors' patients in Family Care and other programs can see. But the big-ticket items are getting more attention, and rightly so.
An obvious one is repeal of the prevailing wage law. That law simply says that when municipal or state projects go to bid, the winning contractors have to pay average wages for the area. Repealing this promotes cheap labor at the expense of those living and working in our communities.
Then there’s the changes to how professors and other instructors are treated in the University of Wisconsin system. The explicit rationale given by the GOP budget-makers is that the UW system can then act more like a business, responding quickly and nimbly to changes in the market. In other words, cheap, fungible labor among the instructional staff. I’ve taught high school seniors for nearly two decades now, and I’ve never heard one of them say, "I want to go to a university that sees its professors as cheap labor." The labor at the UW system isn’t too keen on the idea, either.
The proposed changes to the K-12 school system fit the cheap-labor philosophy, too. One is the plan to expand the state-wide school voucher system, which pays less per pupil than the public system and which does not have the onerous requirement that teachers and administrators be licensed or qualified enough to command a decent salary and benefit package. Indeed, years ago many pro-voucher supporters in this state gave up on the idea that voucher schools were better than the public schools and instead seized upon the idea that they were cheaper.
The budget also plans to take low-performing schools away from the Milwaukee Public School district and put them into the hands of charter and voucher operators who take less in state aid (and pay their teachers less, usually) than MPS does. There’s nothing in the budget proposal about what different classroom techniques or curricula those schools will use to boost achievement in those schools, but there is an explicit provision that any wrap-around services (after-school care, etc.) implemented must be revenue neutral or money-saving.
Finally, of course, there’s the proposal to let school districts hire uncertified teachers, who may not even have a college degree, but only part-time and with no benefits. Of course, those people will be cheaper to employ than college graduates who put in the time and effort to learn not just real-world experience in a subject matter but, you know, how to teach.
All of this adds up to one thing: hundreds of millions of dollars sucked out of the Wisconsin economy and into the hands of the already-rich. Since 2011, as the state’s Republicans pursued their cheap-labor policies, they complemented them with tax cuts that disproportionately benefitted the rich. They even raised taxes on the poor!
And just days after these last items affecting the UW system and the public schools made it through the budget, there was perhaps the least-surprising headline of all time: "Lawmakers want to end tax that hits highest income earners." Not only have this state’s Republicans sought to take money out of everyday workers’ pockets and food from our families’ tables, they are depositing all those savings right into the hands of those who need it least.
We never do learn, in "The Sopranos," whether that on-the-cheap house falls and kills the nice family whose safety Carmela was so worried about. And who knows, maybe 10 or 15 years from now things will change and this state’s middle class can have revival after shrinking more than any other. But it would be nice if, for once, the Wisconsin GOP would show even a fraction of the concern Carmella did about the consequences of their cheap-labor obsession. Right now, I don’t think they would care one bit if the whole thing came crashing completely down, and they’re doing everything they can to hasten it.