2/23/11

Governor vs. Unions in Wisconisn

Teacher unions and state governments around the country have their attention focused on the Badger State right now. That’s because in Wisconsin the new Republican governor there, a fiscal conservative named Scott Walker who still drives a 1998 Saturn and brown bags ham & cheese sandwiches to work every day (so says his website), has all but declared war on the state’s public employee unions. Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature have introduced a bill that would, among other things, strip the collective bargaining right out of union contracts. Yes, you read that correctly – collective bargaining.

Now let’s be clear about this issue right up front: collective bargaining is at the core of established labor rights in this country and many others, a universal right repeatedly recognized and affirmed by law and understood even to be in the realm of a fundamental human right. Collective bargaining, by definition, is “a process of voluntary negotiations between employers and trade unions aimed at reaching agreements which regulate working conditions.” Collective bargaining is what unions are all about; eliminate collective bargaining and a union’s power to negotiate with an employer (in this case the state of Wisconsin) is gone. No wonder that any union would treat a move to eliminate this most fundamental right as a battle royal and take to the streets, as they’ve been doing in Madison, the capital.

No question about it: seeking to eliminate such a right is a bold, audacious step that has shocked many. Walker’s proposed legislation, which has the state in a pandemonium with Democratic lawmakers sitting it out in neighboring Illinois so they can’t be forced to vote on the bill and teachers boycotting classes, has been described as an “assault” on unions (that comment by President Obama) and by others as a pretext to “bust” unions. Others on the right are defending it in the face of the toughest economic times since the 1930s.

Why Wisconsin (of all places) is the site for this battle is puzzling because collective bargaining here in the U.S. was first recognized in Wisconsin, and the state is heavily unionized. Yes, Wisconsin has its own version of today’s state-by-state budget crisis (some 35 states and Puerto Rico are in the same boat), but its budget shortfall is a mere $137 million vs. Rhode Island’s, which is close to $300 million. California’s is in the billions. Of course Wisconsin is where conservative “young blood” Congressman Paul Ryan is from (he has emerged as the Republican’s budget hawk), and the state tossed out Senator Russ Feingold in the last election, a darling of the left, so the land of the “cheese heads” has become more conservative of late.

Walker’s bill also would require state workers to cover more of their health care premiums – they only pay some six percent currently, a low amount these days – and it would also require public employee unions to conduct annual votes to maintain certification and removes the rights of unions to tap members’ paychecks for union dues. These last two measures in the bill, like gutting the right to collective bargaining, would make it much harder for unions to function in the manner they are accustomed to and would represent a paradigm shift in employer-labor relations.

Union defenders understand this bill as ideologically driven. They believe that Walker is a stalking horse for fiscal, small government conservatives who want to see public unions rendered much less powerful. Supporters of Walker’s bill see it as a move to rein in unions which have been granted sweetheart contracts over the years (by Democrat and Republican politicians) that are unsustainable today. There’s a lot of truth to that view, of course, and we all know it with pension and healthcare obligations outstripping state’s abilities to fund them. Something has to be done about that problem, and many public employee unions around the country recognize this and are giving back because, in the end, it means their jobs and their retirements. And as I’ve said before, if you’ve paid into your state or municipal funded account through your working years, you deserve your pension. It’s not your fault that politicians didn’t pay in the taxpayer share they collected from all of us.

But in the moment we’re experiencing now, compromising on pay and benefits particulars is one thing; taking away collective bargaining is quite another.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Madison and how it influences the actions of other states sitting on massive unfunded pension liabilities. Here in the Ocean State we still have no idea how Governor Chafee and the General Assembly will handle pension reform or how far they will go. Chafee has said that he wants to “work together with the unions.” Let’s hope that approach, as opposed to Scott Walker’s, works better in the end.