WI Unions vs. Les Miserables

This afternoon, I stumbled on this video of Wisconsin Union protesters singing “Do You Hear the People Sing” from the musical Les Miserables.

Aside from making your ears bleed (this is a confusing song to ask a crowd of people to sing!), this seemed rather ironic.

(If you want to hear a good recording of the song, click here for the 25th Anniversary concert of Les Miserables, starting at 5:34.)

According to the YouTube page, this bit of political theater was conducted in protest to SB 11 in Wisconsin. Per Ballotopedia, this is the bill to limit collective bargaining to only base wages, requires union members to vote annually on having labor representation, allows workers to opt out of paying union dues if their job is represented by a labor union, caps government agencies from paying more than 88% of an individual’s health care benefits and requires employees to actually contribute to their own retirement programs (brutal, isn’t it?).

Can you compare paying less than 12% of your own health insurance premiums, making personal contributions to retirement programs and having the ability to vote on union representation to the extreme poverty and limited personal freedoms that the poor went through in revolutionary France that Victor Hugo captured in Les Miserables?

Years ago, I read the novel as a sixth grader. Admittedly, this was deep stuff for a 12-year-old to comprehend, but I don’t remember unions or collective bargaining being a resounding theme in either the novel or the musical. Hugo was sympathetic to the cause of the revolutionaries fighting the corruption of their government, limiting freedom and raising taxes on the citizens.

While there are many themes that run through Les Miserables, “Do You Hear the People Sing” is a number from the musical when the student revolutionaries are rounding up the poor to rebel against the corruption of the French government.

In fact, the plight of the poor in the Les Mis universe directly contrasts with the high salaries, benefits and near absolute job security of teachers in Wisconsin. If anything, average taxpayers should be taking to the streets and singing this song.

How many teachers have been jailed for stealing a loaf of bread as the character of Jean Valjean was? How many of them face death for even assembling to counter the government’s actions? In the book and the play, the deaths at the barricade revolution are an integral part of the plot. (Spoiler alert) The Les Mis revolutionaries were all killed with the exception of Marius. They didn’t have the benefit of the First Amendment.

After I saw the video, I pulled up the soundtrack on my iTunes and listened to “Do You Hear the People Sing” for the first time in a while. Consider the lyrics. Isn’t this the opposite of what the Union protesters are doing?

ENJORLRAS:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums,
there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.

COMBEFERRE:
Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade, is there a world you long to see?

COURFEYRAC:
Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free.

STUDENTS:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again
When the beating of your heart, echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes

FEUILLY:
Will you give all you can give, so that our banner may advance?
Some will fall and some will live,
will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France.

CHORUS:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again
When the beating of your heart, echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes

The Les Mis revolutionaries were fighting the tax burden and byzantine legal code that unfairly targeted the poor. Teaching is a tough job, but making comparisons between lush union jobs and the absolute poverty of the French citizenry during 19th century France is an enormous stretch.

Comparing the two videos should put the Wisconsin protest into perspective. These are Americans with actual jobs in an environment where at least 10% of the country is unemployed. These are people with retirement plans and health benefits who are complaining about having to up their personal contributions. The characters in Les Miserables were fighting for the same personal rights we have outlined in the The Bill of Rights and a reduced tax burden. These characters struggled to put food on the table. Where are the similarities?

Also, the next time that people on the left mock tea party attendees for dressing up (even I acknowledge that they’re strange), I’ll point out the guy dressed up as a Les Mis character. Who is he supposed to be? Marius? Enjorlas? I’m betting he’s a University of Wisconsin musical theater major…

H/T: Buzzfeed

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