If you’ve been following what’s going on in state houses in Wisconsin and New Jersey, it’s just the beginning of a major catastrophe that will soon spread to my home state, California.
There used to be red states and blue states.
Now there are just red-ink states.
The problem is, red leadership states have come up with just one big way to deal with their massive deficits: unabashed union busting. That’s the un-euphemistic way to describe Wisconsin’s attempt to legislate away a public employee’s right to collective bargaining.
The simple matter is this: union busting is nation busting.
Download some Woody Guthrie on iTunes and try to imagine an America without unions. Without such institutions, the common worker would have no chance to stand up to the rich and powerful in this country. In fact, this country would probably become a lot more like the democracy it tried to shaped in our own image–the Philippines.
My cousin Aida knows how that society works.
Aida is my first cousin, the daughter of my father’s brother who never immigrated to the U.S. When I first met Aida, she was a middle-aged school principal in the Philippines, and I was a young reporter for an NBC affiliate covering the fight for democracy against the repressive dictatorship of the U.S.-backed regime of Ferdinand Marcos.
The time was 1983, the year opposition leader Sen. Benigno Aquino was assassinated. More than a million Filipinos took to the streets of Manila to join a funeral procession that spontaneously became a rally for freedom—the first expression of mass public sentiment for democracy in that country.
Call it the first major peep of People Power; it was just a harbinger of what would come not just in the Philippines, but to all other countries yearning to emulate the U.S. and our free democratic society.
Watching Tahrir Square this month reminded me of Manila in 1983.
Marcos’ martial law did come to an end a few years later and democracy was restored. But oligarchies like the one in the Philippines–where the rich elite rule and the vast majority of people are extremely poor–make people yearn for the real thing. Aida waited some 15 years before being allowed to immigrate to the U.S. True to immigrant style, upon her arrival to America, Aida went back to school to get her state credential and has had a successful career teaching bilingual Filipino kids in San Francisco.
As a union member, she now has reached retirement age.
While all the talk of of red states and red-ink makes her union comrades nervous about having enough money to live on in retirement, as a dual citizen, Aida holds on to her trump card.
She’s planning to go back to the Philippines.
“I just built my home there,” she told me at a recent family gathering.
And why not? At 45 pesos to a dollar, retiree Aida is closer to the oligarchical rich and powerful living in pesos there than she would be living in dollars in the U.S. Here, both Aida and her fellow union teachers are sweating out how they will survive if their current pay and their pensions are cut.
California is next in line to deal with the public pension issue. But newly elected Gov. Jerry Brown is a Democrat who doesn’t need to posture like Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker.
The pain may be spread a bit more evenly. Unions may yet get a fair shake (especially after they helped bankroll Brown’s victory).
But if the unions fail here, Aida’s all ready to spend her time and her teacher’s pension where she’ll be better off–back in the Philippines.
After coming to America she never expected to see life in the Philippines look more appealing than the U.S. Then again, the economy here has even American-born Filipinos like me wondering about the necessity of a global retirement.
It might have to be.
As a third world democracy, the Philippines has never matched up to the U.S. But maybe it will get closer as the U.S. seems set to go into reverse.
If unions get busted in all the red-ink states, it would mean the beginning of a middle class evaporation here that would make the U.S. look a whole lot more like the Philippines.
That’s not the way democracy was supposed to evolve.