As Wisconsin rages, two commemorative days coming up may help us put its battle in context.
The first is "the wildest, most action-packed day of the Jewish year," according to Chabad.org: This "fun holiday," Purim, starts the evening of March 19. It celebrates the time 2,400 years ago in Persia, now Iran, when a decree ordered the extermination of all Jews—but through a providential series of events Mordecai was able to stop the holocaust.
The synagogue custom is to read the book of Esther, with kids encouraged to twirl noisemakers and adults to stamp their feet whenever they hear the name of Haman, the would-be Hitler (or Ahmadinejad) of his era. Some Christians these days attend Passover seders, which is great since 2,000 years ago one of those seders was the Last Supper—but churches miss out when they don't make merry about one of the Bible's great stories of God's deliverance. (I know of one Christian college planning a Purim celebration.)
Are unionized Wisconsin government employees like the Jews of Persia, with a dictator planning their demise?
The second date is March 25. Sadly, I need to take you back a century, to what happened following the Purim festivities of March 14, 1911. Eleven days later, 146 factory workers, many of them young Jewish female immigrants, died when they were trapped on the ninth floor of Manhattan's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (shirtwaists were women's blouses). A locked door kept many from using a stairwell. A rusty fire escape collapsed. Fire engine ladders reached only to the sixth floor. Jumpers burst right through firemen's nets.
Watchers screamed in horror, much as they did on 9/11, when humans hit the pavement and became corpses. The 1911 tragedy spurred growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. That was good: Working conditions were often horrid and safety precautions clearly lax. Unions fought to protect life and raise wages so that children of workers would have better lives. Most Americans sympathized with unionization efforts because most of us tend to root for the underdog.
Are teachers and other unionized Wisconsin government employees like the shirtwaist factory workers, packed into a sweatshop, working for paupers' wages without vacations?
Purim is about a happy role reversal, but unionization brought a role reversal of a different kind, with the brave leaders of oppressed people in 1911 often becoming "union bosses" over the next several decades. Unions emerged to fight poverty and were wildly successful, but in the process lost sympathy. Americans were not excited about bailing out car companies when unionized autoworkers in 2008 averaged $65 per hour.
The results of the labor revolution of the 20th century are mixed, but maybe that's not surprising. We often equate "revolution" and "change," but if you go all the way around in a revolving door, you end up in the same place. After a century of union efforts, we still have an upper class of U.S. workers and a lower class—but government workers are in the upper class. The claim of the latter to be "public servants" is shaky when the servants, on average, make more than their masters.
The builders of unions after 1911 saw them as ways to improve working conditions and to increase wages by getting workers a larger share of the corporate profits their effort generates. Not until the 1950s and 1960s did government employee unions begin to engage in collective bargaining with their governors, who often found it easier to grant grand pension packages than to push back. Today Wisconsin teachers average $78,000 per year in salary and benefits. The Milwaukee Public Schools acknowledges that its average teacher reels in $100,000. That's far more on average than their private-sector counterparts—and we don't even have to get into questions about what's most important, the quality of the teaching.
Government union leaders are portraying Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as a new Haman: You want to hang us, we'll hang you. They'd have a stronger case if this were 1911 and their members were still on the bottom. They're not. They're on top. The leaders want to redistribute wealth from poorer citizens to richer union members. Now taxpayers are fighting back.