Wisconsin Teacher Showdown
Neither side is covering themselves in glory in the battle over the Badger State budget.
Wisconsin’s new governor, Republican Scott Walker, has proposed radical cutbacks in the benefits of state workers, along with curtailing their right to collectively bargain. The new state legislature, which is overwhelmingly Republican, seems ready to go along. So the public sector unions are staging an illegal wildcat strike and Democrats in the state legislature are taking a page from their brethren in Texas and skedaddling out of state to avoid a quorum.
Walker isn’t backing down.
“If anything, I think it’s made the Republicans in the Assembly and the Senate stronger,” he told Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren in an interview Thursday night. “They’re not going to be bullied. They’re not going to be intimidated.”
Naturally, Washington is weighing in:
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement backing Walker’s proposal, saying governors like Walker “are daring to speak the truth about the dire fiscal challenges Americans face at all levels of government, and daring to commit themselves to solutions that will liberate our economy and help put our citizens on a path to prosperity.”
The Big Guy, too:
President Obama thrust himself and his political operation this week into Wisconsin’s broiling budget battle, mobilizing opposition Thursday to a Republican bill that would curb public-worker benefits and planning similar protests in other state capitals. Obama accused Scott Walker, the state’s new Republican governor, of unleashing an “assault” on unions in pushing emergency legislation that would change future collective-bargaining agreements that affect most public employees, including teachers.
The president’s political machine worked in close coordination Thursday with state and national union officials to get thousands of protesters to gather in Madison and to plan similar demonstrations in other state capitals.
I would argue that the internal affairs of Wisconsin is not the business of the president or the Speaker but that’s apparently a bygone notion.
Walker’s case is simple:
Mr. Walker said he had no other options, since he is facing a deficit of $137 million in the current state budget and the prospect of a $3.6 billion hole in the coming two-year budget. “For us, it’s simple,” said Mr. Walker, whose family home was surrounded by angry workers this week, prompting the police to close the street. “We’re broke.”
But his ruthlessness in carrying this out is eye-opening:
For months, state and local officials around the country have tackled their budget problems by finding trims here and there, apologetically resorting to layoffs, and searching for accounting moves to limp through one more year. Events in Wisconsin this week, though, are a sign of something new: No more apologies, no half-measures. Given the dire straits of budgets around the country, other state leaders may take similarly drastic steps with state workers, pensions and unions.
“I’m sure we’re going to hear more from other states where Republican governors are trying to heap the entire burden of the financial crisis on public employees and public employees’ unions,” said William B. Gould IV, a labor law professor at Stanford University and a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. “I think it’s quite possible that if they’re successful in doing this, a lot of other Republican governors will emulate this,” Mr. Gould added.
Naturally, the battle lines are being drawn on predictable partisan lines.
Ezra Klein insists that unions aren’t to blame for Wisconsin’s budget problems.
Let’s be clear: Whatever fiscal problems Wisconsin is — or is not — facing at the moment, they’re not caused by labor unions. That’s also true for New Jersey, for Ohio and for the other states. There was no sharp rise in collective bargaining in 2006 and 2007, no major reforms of the country’s labor laws, no dramatic change in how unions organize. And yet, state budgets collapsed. Revenues plummeted. Taxes had to go up, and spending had to go down, all across the country.
Blame the banks. Blame global capital flows. Blame lax regulation of Wall Street. Blame home buyers, or home sellers. But don’t blame the unions. Not for this recession.
And that’s right insofar as it goes. But, like most states, Wisconsin’s most significant budget item is education spending and, like most states, the teachers’ unions are an incredibly powerful actor in setting the budget.
Then again, Ezra argues, Scott — who’s only been in office six weeks — himself partly created the problem he’s trying to solve.
The governor signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues. The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit.
The NYT editorial board blames Walker:
In a year when governors across the country are competing to show who’s toughest, no matter what the consequences, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin stands out as the first to bring his State Capitol to a halt.
Like many governors, he wants to cut the benefits of state workers. But he also decided a budget crisis was a good time to advance an ideological goal dear to his fellow Republicans: eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Not surprisingly, thousands of workers descended on the Capitol building, pounding on windows and blocking doors, yelling “shut it down.” So many teachers called in sick that public schools in Madison and more than a dozen other districts had to be closed. On Thursday, the Democrats in the State Senate refused to show up, vowing to prevent any action until the governor drops his plan. The state police were sent to find them.
Mr. Walker has decried the chaos, but it was entirely self-inflicted. His plan to undermine the unions, which would have no direct impact on the budget, would take away nearly all of their rights to negotiate.
As for the unions, I am not among liberals the world’s biggest defender of public-employee unions, but Walker’s proposal is obviously designed in terribly bad faith and is a first step toward trying to bust the unions altogether, an unspoken but cherished conservative goal of longstanding. Making public-sector employees pay a larger share of their healthcare premiums is one thing. Doing what Walker is trying to do is appalling. He’s just making scapegoats of hard-working people who contribute no less to the economy simply because they’re employed in the public sector.
Megan McArdle, though, sees it differently.
State governments are where some of the hardest choices about taxes and spending have to be made. And thanks to a confluence of factors–ObamaCare rules that keep states from cutting Medicaid spending, poorly thought-out pension obligations that are now coming due, crashing revenue thanks to the recession, and in all but one states, a balanced budget requirement–those choices have to be made now. Wisconsin is facing a $3.6 billion shortfall over the next two years. The money is going to have to come from somewhere.
She elaborates at length why she’s torn as to whether the teachers are the right place.
The WSJ editorial board, shockingly, sides with the governor against the unions.
Mr. Walker’s very modest proposal would take away the ability of most government employees to collectively bargain for benefits. They could still bargain for higher wages, but future wage increases would be capped at the federal Consumer Price Index, unless otherwise specified by a voter referendum. The bill would also require union members to contribute 5.8% of salary toward their pensions and chip in 12.6% of the cost of their health insurance premiums.
If those numbers don’t sound outrageous, you probably work in the private economy. The comparable nationwide employee health-care contribution is 20% for private industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average employee contribution from take-home pay for retirement was 7.5% in 2009, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute.
The reality is that the unions are trying to trump the will of the voters as overwhelmingly rendered in November when they elected Mr. Walker and a new legislature. As with the strikes against pension or labor reforms that routinely shut down Paris or Athens, the goal is to create enough mayhem that Republicans and voters will give up.
Unions are treating these reforms as Armageddon because they’ve owned the Wisconsin legislature for years and the changes would reduce their dominance. Under Governor Walker’s proposal, the government also would no longer collect union dues from paychecks and then send that money to the unions. Instead, unions would be responsible for their own collection regimes. The bill would also require unions to be recertified annually by a majority of all members. Imagine that: More accountability inside unions.
The larger reality is that collective bargaining for government workers is not a God-given or constitutional right. It is the result of the growing union dominance inside the Democratic Party during the middle of the last century. John Kennedy only granted it to federal workers in 1962 and Jerry Brown to California workers in 1978. Other states, including Indiana and Missouri, have taken away collective bargaining rights for public employees in recent years, and some 24 states have either limited it or banned it outright.
And for good reason. Public unions have a monopoly position that gives them undue bargaining power. Their campaign cash—collected via mandatory dues—also helps to elect the politicians who are then supposed to represent taxpayers in negotiations with those same unions. The unions sit, in effect, on both sides of the bargaining table. This is why such famous political friends of the working man as Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia opposed collective bargaining for government workers, even as they championed private unions.
Harry Brighouse, a philosophy professor at Wisconsin’s flagship campus and contributor to the left-of-center Crooked Timber blog, thinks the protests have a shot:
I’ve chatted with one Democratic legislator and my wife with another: both report that the Republicans are really rattled by the response, having simply not anticipated it (no-one, absolutely no-one, did—everyone I know has been stunned, and that includes leading union organisers). I have to say the Democrats in the legislature have been solid—like the union leaderships they seem to understand that, as one just told me “we’re in the fight of our lives”. And there is a sense among the demonstrators that this is the one to win.
Yves Smith is more pessimistic:
Don’t underestimate the ability of the Democrats to trade this opportunity away. All the defecting Senators are asking for is to slow down the process and negotiate the bill. Sounds reasonable, right?
As someone who been party to deal-making, the problem with being reasonable and measured is that that only works with fair-minded and/or experienced opponents. Being non-negotiable is not only terribly effective (you throw a tantrum and then make only token concessions to let the other side save a teeny bit of face), it also takes comparatively little in the way of bargaining skills.
The right wing, for the most part, has made being unreasonable and non-negotiable part of its branding. The left, peculiarly, has not adapted. And the result is that it too often winds up ceding way more ground than it needs to.
Tim F. notes that “Wisconsin has a fairly straightforward process for recalling elected officials.” But it’s only operative once an official has been in office for more than a year. And there’s no evidence at all that Walker’s actions are unpopular with anyone other than public employees — who have something of a vested interest here.
Dave Schuler draws a humorous comparison with what’s going on in Madison and the rioting in Athens and other European cities. Certainly, the spectacle is unseemly.
As for me, I’m actually torn here.
I have very little sympathy for labor unions in general and for public sector unions in particular. I think organization and collective bargaining are good for both sides — it’s simply more efficient to negotiate broad terms once rather than on a per employee basis — but strikes, lockouts, and variations of the practices are counterproductive. At the end of the day, it’s up to the people doing the hiring to determine what employees are worth to the company.
And it’s even more problematic when we’re dealing with public employees, in that they have an enormous ability to hold society hostage. We’re entrusting these people to teach our kids, police our streets, and fight our fires. Their ability to collectively withhold their services at the most inopportune times is simply untenable. And that’s to say nothing of their ability to hold us financially hostage.
Further, the actions of both the Wisconsin employees and the state’s Democratic legislators are not exactly worthy of sympathy. Elected officials hiding in another state to avoid a vote? Seriously? And, I’m sorry, school teachers — let alone those with a valid contract — walking out on their classrooms for political leverage is as unprofessional as it is illegal.
All that said, though, I actually agree with Tomasky and others who argue Walker is acting in bad faith. He was just elected in November. If one reads his platform on Education and Government Spending & Reform, there’s zero indication of plans for radical overhaul of collective bargaining rules. (He did, naturally, promise to roll back his predecessor’s tax hikes.) And, while it’s reasonable enough for a Republican governor to expect to be able to get an up-or-down vote on his bills when both houses of the state legislature are majority Republican, Democrats have a right to expect not to have radical legislation crammed down their throats without a chance to debate and offer amendments.