Friday, March 4, 2011

Union-busting at the Tall & Fat Store

In Back to School, Rodney Dangerfield's character is a successful businessman who owns a chain of clothing stores: Thorton Melon's Tall & Fat.  It seems political cartoonists shop there for some of their characters, especially for two recent cartoons about the confrontation between labor unions and the Republican efforts to curb or eliminate their collective bargaining rights.

Nate Beeler's cartoon in The Washington Examiner expressed an anti-union stance, with particular reference to the state employee unions that have been targeted by some state governments.  In it he evokes two long-standing conventions of political cartoons to make his point: The height of a human figure suggests the power of the group it represents, and corpulence suggests wealth, greed, and corruption.

Some of the most famous and perhaps oldest examples of these conventions can be found in the work of Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist in the 1800s.  He is perhaps best known for his 'toons attacking Boss Tweed, the corrupt and wealthy political organizer in New York City in the years immediately following the Civil War.  In the example here, we see Nast using both the height and girth conventions.

Tweed's height and the policeman's lack of it suggest a power differential, suggest that Tweed has the ability to avoid prosecution despite his vast embezzlement schemes.  His vast waistline reflects the truth about him -- he possessed a rather large belly -- but it also  represents his "hunger" for money and power.

Nast's depiction of Boss Tweed -- especially the enormous belly -- became iconic for corruption and greed.

In Beeler's cartoon, we can see those conventions again.  His image suggests that the public employee's union is powerful and is lording that power over the humble, smaller taxpayer revealed in the second panel.  The union member's waistline evokes the large salaries, cushy pensions, and "Cadillac" health plans some public employee union members allegedly possess -- especially those in Wisconsin. 

I assume Beeler intends the irony of the plus-sized union member calling someone else a "fat cat."  He may be suggesting that the public sector employees are disingenuously claiming to defend workers against abuse by private sector employers, despite the fact that they do not work for "fat cats," but instead work for the government (directly) and the taxpayers (indirectly).

I realize that Beeler may be doing the bidding of his uberconservative employers at the Examiner, but his cartoon gets the dynamics of the situation wrong in a couple of ways.

Public sector unions DO protect workers from being exploited -- but not by the taxpayers.  The taxpayers (who, ironically, include the state workers) provide the money for the salaries, but they are not the "boss."  The taxpayers do not negotiate pay and benefits.  The taxpayers do not hire, fire, and suspend.  The taxpayers do not control break times and sick days and working conditions, etc.  Those things are done by government officials, managers, school principals, and school district superintendents.

It is true that the public sector employee unions can be powerful politically.  They can bring a lot of voters to the polls, and they can help finance election campaigns.  But if the public sector unions are so powerful in this instance, why have the Democratic state senators in Wisconsin gone into hiding to stall the bill that would strip the union of its collective bargaining rights?  Why have unions been unable to stop similar efforts in Ohio?

As for the union member's belt size?  The average salary for public school teachers in Wisconsin is about $46,000.  The starting salary for teachers there is about $25,000.  Getting fat on that starting salary would take some time, wouldn't it?

The average salary for public workers in general in Wisconsin is about $50,000, which is about $1,800 more than the average salary for private-sector workers in the state.  That is about a 4 percent difference.

In Beeler's cartoon, the angry union member looks more than 4 percent larger than the taxpayer.

Beeler's perspective seems off to me in more ways than one.

Another element Beeler gets wrong?  The fat cats his union member refers to are missing.  They would be the Koch Brothers, the billionaires with large investments in Wisconsin and who were large financial contributors to Gov. Scott Walker's election campaign.  If Beeler's union member is wrong about "fat-cat employers" wanting to exploit workers, then why are the Koch Brothers so interested in Walker's showdown with Democrats and union supporters?

The "fat cat" missing from Beeler's cartoon is present in Nick Anderson's cartoon in The Houston Chronicle.  There we can again see the conventions of height = power and girth = greed, but the union members are on the short side this time.

1 comment:

  1. While in a literal sense you're right that the taxpayer is not the public worker's boss, his supervisor or principal or whatnot, in a very real sense the taxpayer IS the boss, the employer.

    And, if I am the employer of these workers, I want to be a GOOD employer. I want to pay decent wages and provide solid benefits, pension, and workplace protections for labor. I have no problem with the taxpayer-as-boss metaphor, because I believe that the employer has profound obligations to the worker.

    This applies equally to public and private workers, and the divide-and-conquer distinction the Right is trying to make between "fat-cat" teachers and other workers (retail...) is maddening. I want MORE benefits and protections for private workers, union or no, not FEWER protections for public workers.