Home Commentary Op-ed Wisconsin, the V.I. and the Future of Labor

Wisconsin, the V.I. and the Future of Labor

Wisconsin, the V.I. and the Future of Labor

Recent events in Wisconsin and other states make it clear that the attack on the American middle class has entered a new phase. Having reduced incomes, eliminated pensions and eroded benefits and worker protections in the private sector, the reactionary right and its corporate sponsors have now set their sights on public sector workers.

The theme: why should public sector workers have what you, the former middle class employed in the private sector, no longer have? It is a new American way of looking at unfairness.

Rather than the rising tide lifting all boats, we ask: if you are suffering, why shouldn’t they? If you don’t have a decent wage, benefits or a pension, why should they? It’s the American dream turned on its head.

Flying under the banners of austerity, “crushing” tax burdens and “shared sacrifice” (at least by the poor and workers), an ideological movement to destroy organized labor is masquerading as budget balancing. Balancing these budgets has been made all the more difficult by tax cuts given to the wealthiest people and businesses.

This transfer of money from public workers to the richest people has its own masquerade, that it is needed for “job creation.” Why these job creators will create jobs when there is no demand because people don’t have money to spend – and will have even less to spend in the future – remains an economic mystery. But, like many mysteries, it is based in religion, the Republican religion of tax cuts and “Hooray for me, and screw you.”

As in many other areas, the Virgin Islands is now far out of the mainstream of American life. But it is not as if the territory has moved. It hasn’t.

Instead, mainland politics have moved so far to the right that they are unrecognizable. The best example is President Obama, the savior of progressive politics just two years ago. Today, the president is a conventional center-right politician, similar, if not identical, to former President Clinton. Obama and Clinton: two Democratic presidents, each more conservative than presidents Eisenhower, Ford or even Nixon.

For a variety of reasons, the Virgin Islands has not gone down the national path. The territory’s unions remain strong, there is a large public sector, benefits are good and there are very strong worker protections.

In fact, in contrast to the mainland, you could make a strong case that V.I. politics and government have been dominated by entrenched liberal reactionaries. The greatest challenges that Gov. deJongh faces in trying to lead and manage through these hard times come from the left.

And much of it takes the form of trying to defend the indefensible. By almost any standard, the V.I. public workforce is not very productive, and its management level is weak and relatively powerless in the face of very strong worker protections. It is way too hard to fire people who don’t work. And the pension system is a ticking time bomb that is not being defused.

Historically, this has been strictly a local story. The territory has had the great good fortune of small size and being able to fly under the national radar. But in our times, this can be a dangerous strategy. The reactionary right has become very adept at finding some small target and turning it into a national case study in “liberal” abuse. The nonprofit group ACORN, now out of business, Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio are all examples of this kind of political warfare.

In this regard, from a right-wing perspective, the Virgin Islands could make a perfect target, some place to “be made an example of.” It is politically vulnerable; and it has a large government sector and strong unions. And it is predominantly black, always a favorite of the reactionary right. Finally, for a TV-lobotomized electorate, you could make the case that it is taking “foreign aid” from the United States.

Not being noticed has always been a risky strategy. It is riskier today. There used to be a judge in my hometown, a squinty faced little bigot. When a black defendant appeared before him for some minor offense, the judge felt he was always required to “make an example out of you” with some stiff sentence.

When the defendant was white, the judge would feign outrage at the offense, but he would always be willing to “give you one more chance to straighten out.” That mindset is a powerful force in our politics today.

Once you have become a target, they can make your life extremely difficult, or, as in the case of ACORN, end it.

There has always been a strong substantive case for “fixing” what is wrong with V.I. government.

The cost, the lousy services, the indifference and the unfairness of system are pretty much out there in the open. But today, in addition to the “value proposition” and the fiscal argument, there is a strong political one.

At a minimum, you always want to be in the position, when being attacked, of being able to say, “Yes, we have a problem, and here is what we are doing to fix it.” That might be a tough call today.

March 23, 2011


  1. Frank,
    You are so right I am a native Virgin Islander who has been very strong in organized labor activities in NC, which is a right-to-work state. I and many of those who are involved in this fight realize that anti-union/ anti-middle class organizers are hiding behind the veil of budgets. In Wisconsin the unions were willing to make the necessary concessions to help the state budget but the Gov’s mandate was to destroy colllective bargaining rights for these public sector workers. The state of NC does not have collective bargaining rights for public sector employees and even the United Nations recognizes that this is a violation of international human rights.
    I am glad to know that USVI is strong in this area but be on guard knowing that sharks are looking for blood wherever they may find it.


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