Two nights ago, watching an interview with a supporter of the Wisconsin budget cuts, I turned into Henry VIII. That monarch was best known for his marital resolutions (“one died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded”), but he had the same ruthless approach to raising public funds by punishing religious enemies. His ransacking of Roman Catholic holy communities goes by the misleading name “dissolution of the monasteries.” “Dissolution” sounds so gentle, almost natural — like tablets fizzing into a glass of water. In fact, religious leaders were tortured and killed as their assets were stolen and melted down. Moreover, much of what was stolen had been procured for personal or family use at great sacrifice by non-affluent laity who thought their most precious items would be safe in a “sanctuary.” They were wrong. Memorial plaques, story-telling tapestries, personal iconography of various kinds — all went off to the king, with no regard for the owners’ loyalty or disloyalty to the monarchy. They were Catholic, that was enough.
That same spirit of mindless appropriation came over me as I watched this man — a bit older than myself — in front of an abstract painting in a clearly comfortable living room — say that yes, he had been in unions, but their time has passed.
And I went ballistic. Postal. My Jared Loughner moment — except not with guns. If someone’s in a union NOW, she’s not sure of benefits. If he was in one long ago, he’s probably still cashing checks. Maybe it underwrites the part of his health care that Medicare doesn’t provide. If he’s really anti-union, he needs to give them back. (not not mention giving back his Medicare to justify lower taxes.)
But he’s not going to give back any of it, is he?
And even if this doesn’t apply to this guy, it certainly applies to many. Pollsters have documented large numbers of former union members, as well as government check-cashers, in Tea Party ranks. If they want to fix the deficit, all they have to do is quit taking the money. If they want to bust the unions, give back the bennies.
But again, I’m not holding my breath on that. So here is my modest proposal:
Unions ought to get their lawyers to go through the ranks of pensioners and compare their addresses with the proportion of Republican voters in the precinct in which the pensioner now lives. Whatever proportion voted Republican in that precinct becomes the percentage of benefit holders who will be revoked, starting, of course, with the largest beneficiaries. Health care, monthly check, whatever.
If these are paid out through intermediaries who were forced by the unions to do so — an auto company, a health insurer — and if that entity is still paying union benefits, perhaps they would like to join in this effort.
Bear in mind that I have a problem with unions as not being universal. I support the things they have wanted — dignity for labor, pay that supports a family, workplace safety, weekends off, health care, etc — but I reject the fundamental principle that labor cartels can benefit everyone. By definition, a cartel is a group that excludes others. Yes, that puts me in Republican ranks, by some definitions. So be it. That will put me in with the Republican small-holders who formed the backbone of the golden era on Unitarianism (yes, that religion predates mega-universities), not to mention the hill country who-knows-what of Vermont Universalism. Oh, yeah — they were Republicans, too.
But I have nothing in common with this current crop of mini-Marie Antoinettes. I support a democratic socialist social contract — universal benefits, single payer, progressive taxation. I am prepared to sacrifice both my liberal reputation and the union movement. But that does not mean turning my back on the good that unions have done. I want to support a transition, in which folks now pushing unions become articulators of rights and security for everyone. I can’t help reminding us that while the Reformation wanted wider access to clergy-guaranteed salvation — namely, bishops — we come from the Radical Reformation, which said everyone has an equal right and equal power to life eternal. I’m just trying to apply that theology to vacation pay, weekends, and health insurance.
Will it hurt, this dissolution of the monasteries which already-protected retirees have built up at home?
That’s the wrong question. Most of us younger folks are already eyebrow deep in economic pain, if not for ourselves, then for our kids.
And do I care?
Not really. I’ve had to sell beloved books for groceries. Let that guy sell his painting for food, and see how soon his family gets hungry again.