You would have to be living under a mountain of old employment forms and job tickets in the back office to have missed the fact that there was a recall election in Wisconsin last week.
At stake? Dramatic change in how relationships between an employer and employee, union and management, and you and your government will be in the future.
Wisconsin voters kept Governor Scott Walker in office after a nasty stretch of 18 months of conflict between Democrats and unions and Walker, who created a tempest by introducing legislation requiring union workers to, among other things, contribute to their health insurance and pensions to the tune of something like five percent.
Doesn’t seem like asking a lot. Citizen taxpayers cover 95%; government employees cover 5%.
Sounds like a real good deal – for the employees.
Obviously there was more at stake than state employees contributing to their benefit programs the way most of the rest of us have to. There were collective bargaining components and lots of other things that changed. But the basic message is: the ride – as we once knew it – is really over.
It’s fitting that the very next day – Wednesday June 6 – was the 68th Anniversary of D-Day. It’s not significant because D-Day was a massive event in a global war, or because it represented a watershed moment in human history. It is significant because yesterday’s election could mark the end of the employee-employer relationship nurtured by, defended by and enjoyed by our “Greatest Generation” – the generation who fought battles like the one on Normandy Beach and came home to a workplace that was a lot more than just a job.
My father served in Europe in World War II. He served in Italy – Sicily. And like millions of other men he returned home in the mid-1940s and started working to get back to whatever normal was, start a family and begin a career. All of which he did.
He spent forty-five years working for the same company, bought stock in the company and collected a pension from the company. In his lifetime if you were loyal, worked hard and were dependable, you could stay with one outfit your entire working life and never have a thing to worry about in retirement. It was the promise given to an entire generation by big companies, big unions and big government.
Permanence was the promise, and part-time, temporary or seasonal work was the antithesis of what they fought for, raised kids to expect and worked decades at. Worry-free retirement at the end of lifetime employment was the expectation – ‘womb to tomb’ security.
Now this kind of a relationship is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Today, we deal with different models for salaries and benefits, health insurance and 401k programs, Social Security and Medicare. The entire fabric of the traditional employer-employee relationship is under fire and being busted up. This isn’t new news; but all the media hype, union activity and political action money that was brought to bear in Wisconsin over the last year proves one thing – it is big news.
Yesterday isn’t an indictment on the thousands of people in Wisconsin whose benefits have been adjusted. In the massive ‘Correction’ movement, it’s a statement that was delivered by 2.5 million Wisconsin voters interested and passionate enough to show up to vote on a summer Tuesday and confirm that they thought they had made a good decision in 2010 electing Scott Walker; that state employees should have a benefit package a little more like theirs; and that recalling a governor who is delivering exactly what he promised is a waste of precious time, energy and resources.
The referendum regarding work rules moves everyone a little farther away from the idea of permanence, and closer to the ideals of temporary employment: being accountable for the work you do each day, responsible for what your own future looks like, and personally ensuring you take the steps necessary to get to where you want to go.
Accountability for what you are doing right now, with compensation, benefits and opportunity to match. Sounds like an efficient workplace. Sounds like staffing.
Permanence in the workplace isn’t good or bad — And neither is temporary employment. They are just concepts that we can choose to utilize as context for our working lives, or foundations for how it is we want to establish relationships with the people we work for and with, and the work that needs to be done.
The politics, policies and passion behind everything that led up to last Tuesday’s historic vote are just support for the idea that accountability cannot be swept under the rug, arbitrated away, or recalled if we don’t like the fact it may have delivered something we weren’t counting on.
And that idea is worth fighting for.