But the idea that somehow the current labor unrest among public workers in places like Wisconsin somehow relates to what happened 100 years ago in New York City is not only a stretch, it’s a, pardon the term, complete fabrication. If history is to be used to inform modernity, at least let’s make it honest and applicable. To compare, as some have done and are doing, the plight of workers in the garment district in 1911 with the issues du jour facing public workers is beyond ludicrous. And it brings to mind Talleyrand’s words, “it’s worse than a crime; it’s a blunder.”
Are the classrooms of America akin to “sweatshops” of old (or in many countries today)? Do schoolteachers and other public employees face the same dehumanizing conditions as immigrant workers before World War I? Do the deaths of 20 workers on an inadequate and overburdened fire escape in 1911 compare to the “plight” of public school teachers in Wisconsin who receive over $50,000 in annual salary, full medical coverage, and ten weeks off in the summer?
Recently, I was in Europe and tried to change a flight to come home a day early and the airline wouldn’t work with me on it. I was not happy. Then I turned on the hotel television and watched scenes from the Tokyo airport. It put my “unhappiness” into perspective. I used to complain that I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.
Yes, American workers—private and public—owe a debt of gratitude to people who fought valiantly generations ago. We also owe honor to so many whose lives were sacrificed on altars of human greed and indifference. But the surest way to dishonor those who fought and died for a better standard of life today is to somehow think that our battles today are on par with theirs.
Not in the same league, frankly. Not even close.
What we have in the current public employee brouhaha is an argument on behalf of unionism for the sake of perpetuating unionism—all done in the education field, of course, in the name of the children. But even that rings hollow when considered in light of what the patron saint of public employee unions had to say. His name was Albert Shanker (1928-1997--former president of American Federation of Teachers) and he was famous for the line, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
His spirit seems to be alive and well across the board in the public employee labor movement.