The Wisconsin Debate: Subjects or Citizens
Kingdoms have subjects and democracies have citizens. In a democracy, government belongs to the people. In kingdoms, the government belongs to the royal family. Kingdoms, of course, come in different forms. If we cannot tell the difference, we are in trouble.
In Wisconsin, the Republicans complain that the Democrats are not playing fair when they leave the State so the elected majority cannot carry out their agenda. After all, in a representative democracy, the elected majority has won the right to govern. This sounds right, but it is only part of the story.
True, the majority has the right to govern citizens, but not subjects. Workers, even public sector workers, have the rights of citizens, which include the right of collective bargaining. To eliminate this civic right is to erase significant gains we have made in changing the foundation of our democracy from property rights to civic rights.
When our democracy was founded, only property owners counted as citizens. Our democracy was founded on property relations, not civic relations. This has changed over the years, so property ownership is no longer a criterion for citizenship. Still, in the workplace, both private and public, one’s work continues to be treated as a piece of property that one exchanges for wages. We sell our work.
The right to collective bargaining is based not only on the ownership of one’s work, but also on the civic right to engage in collective action: to form a community and as a community, to participate in the governing of one’s work life. Given that the workplace continues to be dominated by property law, where workers are subject to the rule of their boss or employer, unions represent an island of democracy in their employer’s kingdoms. For the elected majority to flood this island of democracy with the language of fiscal responsibility is more than we can allow.
Would it not be a great transformation to have a conversation about real democracy in the workplace, instead of a conversation about the elimination of democracy?