Wisconsin’s Hemlock Revolution

In the Middle East, protesters are marching for democracy. In the Midwest, they're protesting against it.

An interesting view on the Wisconsin showdown from an unlikely source, Joe Klein:

Revolutions everywhere–in the middle east, in the middle west. But there is a difference: in the middle east, the protesters are marching for democracy; in the middle west, they’re protesting against it. I mean, Isn’t it, well, a bit ironic that the protesters in Madison, blocking the state senate chamber, are chanting “Freedom, Democracy, Union” while trying to prevent a vote? Isn’t it ironic that the Democratic Senators have fled the democratic process? Isn’t it interesting that some of those who–rightly–protest the assorted Republican efforts to stymie majority rule in the U.S. Senate are celebrating the Democratic efforts to stymie the same in the Wisconsin Senate?

An election was held in Wisconsin last November. The Republicans won. In a democracy, there are consequences to elections and no one, not even the public employees unions, are exempt from that. There are no guarantees that labor contracts, including contracts governing the most basic rights of unions, can’t be renegotiated, or terminated for that matter. We hold elections to decide those basic parameters.

While I’m not particularly sympathetic to the unions here, Klein’s basic facts are wrong.

First, contracts typically can’t be summarily terminated. If they could, there’d really be no point to them! And, indeed, Wisconsin’s governor can’t simply end the contract and terminate the union. He can, presuming the Democrats show up and allow a quorum at the state legislature, modify some of the parameters.

Second, while Republican Scott Walker won the governorship and his party took over the state legislature, they decidedly did not campaign on this measure.

I do, however, largely agree with Klein’s conclusion:

Public employees unions are an interesting hybrid. Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed…of the public? Despite their questionable provenance, public unions can serve an important social justice role, guaranteeing that a great many underpaid workers–school bus drivers, janitors (outside of New York City), home health care workers–won’t be too severely underpaid. That role will be kept intact in Wisconsin. In any given negotiation, I’m rooting for the union to win the highest base rates of pay possible…and for management to win the least restrictive work rules and guidelines governing how much truly creative public employees can be paid.

But we’ve had far too many state legislatures, of both parties, that have been cowed by the political power of the unions and enacted contracts that force state and city governments to be run for the benefit of their employees, rather than for their citizens. This situation is most egregious in far too many school districts across the nation. The events in Wisconsin are a rebalancing of power that, after decades of flush times and lax negotiating, had become imbalanced. That is also something that, from time to time, happens in a democracy.

The teachers’ unions, in particular, are far too powerful. Education is the core function at the state level, consuming the largest chunk of the budget. And schoolteachers have organized to control it.  Not only do they have incredibly good terms of employment — they’re typically guaranteed jobs for life after three years of adequate performance — but they’re generally doing a lousy job educating our kids.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Education, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Axel Edgren says:

    If unions don’t get “their” guys into office, some other entity WILL.

    You know what? The problem is that it is possible to get lots of influence and power outside of the simple democratic procedures. Both corporations and the AEI network need to be castrated along with the unions. Asking unions to deescalate first is just pathetic – how naive are these people?!

    Now the Koch-bought little scumbags are going to get bussed into the state and act as if Walker is some besieged gallant knight of fiscal prudence and freadums, so my hands are tied. I wish these fleeing democrats a happy vacation in Illinois and I hope the Koch buses swerve into a ditch, with no harm other than humiliation done to the sycophant passengers.

    “Second, while Republican Scott Walker won the governorship and his party took over the state legislature, they decidedly did not campaign on this measure.”

    THANK YOU. Muck kudos for recognizing that Walker is overreaching.

    I am still torn whether teachers should strike like this, but then again no one can expect them to just roll over and take it, especially when the only people in Wisconsin who would benefit are the anti-union, pro-corporate randroids and other cult members.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Axel,

    I’m not sure I get the obsession with Koch and Rand. Yes, Koch funds some important pro-business activist groups and Rand wrote some influential novels. But what’s going on in Wisconsin is, at best tangentially related to either of them.

    Is it really your contention that the only people pleased with Walker’s move are out-of-state Randians? And that the only people opposed to powerful public employee unions are cultists?

  3. Mike Drew says:

    Professor,

    Koch at large is much more than tangentially related to this situation here in Wisconsin now. They are funding a counter-rally in Madison featuring Andrew Bretbart today. Hadn’t you heard? I’m not saying that means they’re integrally related to the underlying dispute here, but if they didn;t *have* some interest in it, why would they be troubling themselves financially to *take* such an interest in it that they seek to intervene in the matter at the level of public relations on the ground here today? (Apparently it was determined that national media countermeasures weren’t getting the job done, and some on-the-scene credibility. That is not to say that there won’t be Wisconsinites legitimately supportive of Walker at the counter-rally, but national organization efforts were decidedly a late arrival to the initial protests, which I assure you started out fully spontaneously in response to what you point out was a completely shocking surprise move by the governor.)

  4. JKB says:

    “First, contracts typically can’t be summarily terminated.”

    That’s not true these days. If you need, we can hook you up with some GM bondholders who had their contractual rights summarily and extra-judicially by the current federal administration terminated in favor of unions and other connected groups.

    In any case, this move in Wisconsin only aligns the rights of public sector unions with those currently enjoyed in the federal sector and closer to the ideals of FDR.

    If Obama and the Congressional Dems can arbitrarily rewrite contracts why not a governor?

  5. John Burgess says:

    As far as I can tell, Walker ran on a platform of serious economic reform. So he didn’t spell out all the details… that’s new for a politician? Obama didn’t run on a radical platform, either, but look what we’ve been presented with: something far more radical than advertised.

    Perhaps that’s why people should actually consider the ramifications of their votes, not act all surprised and pissy when things are more (or less) than they’d imagined.

    I’m not in the least surprised that working Wiscononites didn’t attend the past few days’ rallies. They were doing their jobs, after all, not taking part in a sick-out on the taxpayers’ dime.

  6. Mike Drew says:

    There is also this simple fact: “Walker’s gubernatorial campaign received $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC during the 2010 election. That donation was his campaign’s second-highest.”

    http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/02/wisconsin-scott-walker-koch-brothers

    What this might imply or what causal effect it may or may not be having we can certainly discuss and/or doubt, but I don’t think there’s any way to say that makes the Koch entity merely “at best tangentially related” to what’s going on in Wisconsin. I’d say it makes it at least tangentially related, but more fairly *clearly connected* to what is going in Wisconsin, given how central to what is going on here are the actions of the governor, that the actions of the governor are decided by the person who is governor, and that the process of the decision of what person was to be governor during this time was clearly acted upon by the Koch entity. So yeah, I’d say Koch is clearly more than tangentially related to what is going on in Wisconsin.

  7. superdestroyer says:

    I love how the left argues that Republicans will start a huge political push because of $43K in contributions but the $100K given by the unions to Democrats should not be talked about.

    The problem in Wisconsin is that outside of Milwaukee, the highest paying, securest, best job to have is a government job. And that people who make less money and have far less job security and who actually have to work on President’s Day are expected to pay higher taxes so that the government employees can continue having the best jobs.

  8. Mike Drew says:

    @John Burgess

    I’ll let Professor Joyner address whether Walker informed the public of his intention to make this move as clearly as Obama spelled out his intention to do the things in the last Congressional term that elicited the greatest amounts of protest.

    But as to whether working class people attended the protests, what is it you think you’re talking about? I can only assume you get your information from Fox News. I live in Madison and observed the rallies. The people at the protests weren’t millionaires, and they weren’t homeless. They were working class people, mostly taking personal days to be there, or else otherwise accepting the due disciplinary consequences of their actions in not being on the job. Just as civil disobedience theory instructs.

    It is better not to make factual claims for which you have no empirical basis, because often times, you will run into people who have the actual facts about what you prefer to make up falsehoods about, like you have just now.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    Good to finally see an admission Walker’s jihad has nothing to do with balancing the books (since he created the deficit anyway). It’s all about crippling a core constituency of his political adversaries. Wisconcin had a surplus until Brother Walker’s Tax Cuts For Cronies Initiative. But as Klein points out we need to break the power of public service unions because we just do, so shut up.

    Private sector unions have been systematically dismantled over the last thirty years and over that same period wage growth for everyone but the Galtian Overlords and their servants has stagnated. Private sector workers once had decent health care plans, pensions and protection against wrongful or capricious termination. Only public service unions have managed to preserve these things for their members.

    But, now that the corporatocracy has successfully squeezed private sector workers for a few more pennies per share, they’ve found attacking public unions will reap additional rewards.

    Crushing them will remove an annoying reminder of the way things used to be for the middle class before it became a resource to be exploited. But the unions are also a target for the same reason Social Security and Medicare are being targetted by austerity fetishists. All tha
    t money saved can be used for additional tax cuts and bailouts when the time comes round again. Don’t believe me? Ask a deficIt hawk the following question: If the holy Jeebus were to wave his magic cross and make our entire debt and deficit disappear, exactly how would that bring the jobs back?

    Union busting is no more the result of a popular movement than the Tea Party was. It is a product of a very small group of people at the top of the economic ladder, and they aren’t satisfied with controlling most of the country’s wealth. They want it ALL, every last cent, and from their behavior before and since the economis crisis I’m also pretty sure they despise us.

  10. Pete says:

    How many people are employed by the Koch brothers? How many people have stock in their retirement funds that are related to the Koch brothers?

  11. Mike Drew says:

    I love how the left argues that Republicans will start a huge political push because of $43K in contributions but the $100K given by the unions to Democrats should not be talked about.

    Since that’s not what I claimed (“start a huge political rush”? I don’t even know what that would mean.), nor do I think that union contributions to Democrats shouldn’t be talked about, it is appropriate that you fill in an abstract concept for me, who made the reference to the Kochs’ contributions in direct response to Joyner’s claim about their tangentiality.

    It is unfortunately true enough that some of the best jobs available in Wisconsin right now are public jobs. Why is it then inappropriate for middle class people to show up to resist making them, too, less secure and stable in their ability to support families and sustain the Wisconsin middle class through these hard times. Moreover, why shouldn’t working people show up to oppose the undermining of the civil institutions they have established to help protect those good jobs. The question is why people in private jobs have lost such institutions, and why the private economy has been unable to sustain itself such that comparable jobs (which public jobs were established to simply be in parity with, albeit accepting lesser pay for better benefits and more secure pensions). I suppose people will have different views on why that is, but I think it is fair to say that one party has been more involved in undermining institutions that workers organized the private sector to secure greater pay and benefits than the other, and that that same party presided over the events that led to the economic crisis in which we now find ourself.

    We can all draw our own conclusions from this.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    Mike,

    No one is saying that the teachers unions shouldn’t try to get every dollar they can out of the union. However, the other arguement is that those working in private sector may want to keep more of their own money instead of paying it in taxes to fund the gold plated health care that the state employees receive or to fund the massively generous pension programs.

    Why should the public sector workers so that there can more middle class private sector workers in Wisconsin instead of depending on money from the government through to create a middle class?

  13. Ben Wolf says:

    Mike,

    You’re arguing with the useful idiots, people who think slitting their own throats will somehow benefit them when the last drop bleeds out. Listen to the envy and pure bile when they talk about unions getting what they deserve.

    Instead of trying to lift themselves up they devote their energies to bringing down the last vestiges of the American Dream. That’s the real legacy of the Reagan Revolution: envy and hate.

  14. steve says:

    This still looks like old fashioned power politics. The teachers’ unions opposed Walker, so he is going after them. If this were truly just a budget issue, I would expect him to also go after the police and firefighters unions, but since they supported him in the election they are exempt.

    Question. Not knowing Wisconsin law, what would stop a future Democratic government from overturning Walker’s scheme?

    Steve

  15. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t have an extraordinary problem with the Democratic strategy to avoid a quorum; a quorum requirement itself is arguably anti-democratic. Lincoln once tried to break a quorum by jumping out a window. He became the object of a ridicule and was greatly embarrassed, perhaps one of the great regrets in his life. I think that’s what upsets people about the filibuster; the way they are conducted today, there is no cost; one may not even know that a vote is being blocked.

    So, I say, go ahead and mock the Democrats, knowing full well that if the shoe was on the other foot one might do the same. If we don’t mock them, the government will shut down, the greatest feats of legislation will be to not show up to work. Vote for me! I promise to move to another state!

  16. James Joyner says:

    @John Burgess: It’s true that politicians are vague during campaigns. I didn’t follow the Wisconsin race more than tangentially, so all I have to go by is Walker’s campaign site, which doesn’t even hint at this sort of thing.

    As for Obama, he made some sweeping moves in terms of the bailouts, and especially the response to GM and Chrysler, that I considered radical. Otherwise, not much he’s done — certainly, not ObamaCare — surprised me much.

  17. Herb says:

    “However, the other arguement is that those working in private sector may want to keep more of their own money instead of paying it in taxes to fund the gold plated health care that the state employees receive or to fund the massively generous pension programs.”

    Well, that’s a pretty poor argument. I’d love to keep more of my own money instead of paying for the gold plated healthcare and signing bonuses that my favorite athlete receives, but he entertains me on Sundays, so I guess I can’t really complain about coughing up the dough because there is some form of exchange there.

    Same with these state employees. If they’re just sitting there, soaking up healthcare, then maybe you’d have a point. But state employees provide essential services, and the “gold plated health plans” and “massively generous pension programs” are incentives, not hand-outs.

    The issue, as James pointed out, is that teachers -specifically- are “generally doing a lousy job educating our kids.” Tell me how cutting their pay and slashing their benefits will provide the proper motivation to change that.

  18. wr says:

    It’s adorable how all the righties are screaming that the unionized workers in Wisconsin have to give up their fight to protect their basic rights because Walker won an election, and therefore everyone is required to do as he instructs.

    I don’t seem to recall them preaching this particular sermon after the 2008 election.

  19. tps says:

    Someone had an interesting thought that what the union is really fighting for in not so much collective bargining but the fact that the state would stop collecting the union dues for them. I thought I also heard that memebers wouldn’t be required to pay the dues if they didn’t wish to. Aka, making Wisconsin a right-to-work state.

  20. superdestroyer says:

    Herb,

    At least you can choose whether to help fund the over paid athletes. However, the tax payers have no choice in funding the diversity coordinators at the Department of Education and their $20K a year health care plans. Whether the employees or good or not, they all get the same health care plan.

    If teachers and budget analyst are worth so much and go such a great job then why is their pay tied to seniority instead of performance. If teachers are so underpaid, then why does every job opening get multiple applicants? Also, if the value of the public services is so great, then why is Wisconsin losing population to other states. Maybe people are looking for states where the government job is not the beast job in town.

  21. Herb says:

    “However, the tax payers have no choice in funding the diversity coordinators at the Department of Education and their $20K a year health care plans. Whether the employees or good or not, they all get the same health care plan. ”

    Why should taxpayers have a say on this? As a voter, I don’t want to go line by line approving state budgets. I don’t have the time or the energy and frankly I don’t care. I’ll gladly delegate this authority to officials, even allowing for the possibility that I may object to the decisions they make.

    Sounds to me like you’re more interested in axe-grinding against multiculturalism (and other tangential hobby horses) than you are about addressing the needs of the state budget.

  22. Axel Edgren says:

    “But what’s going on in Wisconsin is, at best tangentially related to either of them.”

    Rand formalized the religion of the market, which is what Walker is going with here. The Americans for Prosperity group, a Tea Party group that is a Koch Brothers front, has put up a website and petition called http://www.standwithwalker.com

    “Is it really your contention that the only people pleased with Walker’s move are out-of-state Randians? And that the only people opposed to powerful public employee unions are cultists?”

    In this case, pretty much yes. *Permanently* subjugating unions will give pleasure to the wingnuts but won’t help the state, and Walker helped create the fiscal situation in the first place. There is no reason to pretend there is anything but dogmatism and astroturfing going on here.

  23. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    Walker took all to school in his press conference last night. Gave his reasons and how he came up with his solutions. Did anyone listen. lolI did, and I thought he was clearly awesome!

  24. anjin-san says:

    > I would expect him to also go after the police and firefighters unions,

    Not sure about WI, but in california, pay and pensions for cops and firefighters have reached levels of insanity. The outgoing chief of police in SF, who did a poor job in the top office for just a few short years, got a 500K goodbye kiss and now gets 225K for life.

    If there is a problem with public pay/pensions in WI, how do cops and firefighters fit in, and why are they exempt from this “solution” if not for being a political protected class under the GOP?

  25. Brummagem Joe says:

    There are such things as electoral dictatorships. And they invariably abuse their power whether they are in state houses or union HQ’s. I’m not opposed to the general notion that public sector unions generally have too much power, the police unions are worse than the teachers, but Walker has totally over reached in attempting to abrogate these contracts on what are obviously ideological grounds. And btw remember we’re not just talking about the teachers unions in WI we’re talking about all public sector workers except police and firemen who Walker has excluded thus indadvertently betraying the essentially ideological nature of his remarkably clumsy move. And good luck with trying to demonize teachers JJ with remarkably over generalized, generalizations. There are good school systems and bad school systems, if teachers conditions of employment were entirely the source of the problem (and they sometimes are !) how do you explain the difference.

  26. anjin-san says:

    It is also noteworthy that folks on the right who have been voicing so much concern the last few years about runaway government power (tyranny is a word we hear often) have no problem at all with a group they don’t approve of having their livelihoods put pretty much at the mercy of the government. Less power for the people & more for the government? No problem at all in this case.

    We are clearly in serious need of reform in the area of public pay and pensions. That does not appear to be what this “crisis” is about.

  27. Mike Drew says:

    @Have A Nice G.A.

    The answer is… No, no one’s listening to the guv. Which means, um, *he’s* being taken to school — by the people of Wisconsin. We oppose his plan: http://weaskamerica.com/2011/02/18/weirdness-in-wisconsin/

  28. ponce says:

    “they’re typically guaranteed jobs for life after three years of adequate performance — but they’re generally doing a lousy job educating our kids.”

    What are the terms of your teaching job, James?

    And please list the union won gains you gave up when you got it.

  29. anjin-san says:

    > “they’re typically guaranteed jobs for life after three years of adequate performance

    Does anyone have supporting evidence of this? It does not describe any of the public school teachers I know. They are ALL worried about losing their jobs right now.

  30. Dave G says:

    Why do you keep trying to make this about the teachers’ union? Walker not just eliminating the teachers’ union, he’s trying to eliminate all unions (except for the police and firemen).

    I’m not a teacher. I write software as part of an international physics project coordinated out of the university here in Madison.

    I’m not an overpaid state worker. I could EASILY get a higher-paying job elsewhere, but I love living in Madison and working on interesting, challenging projects alongside really smart people.

    In my case, this bill actually costs the state money. Like a large percentage of university employees, my pay comes out of grant money rather than state funds. Cutting my salary means bringing less money into the state.

    The protests aren’t about salary cuts. I think most people expected there to be salary cuts on top of the existing 3% cut we’ve already got due to furlough days. These protests are about keeping some sort of representation, in anticipation of future issues.

    Scott Walker’s initial act was to propose an effective 10% salary cut, to do away with union representation, and to try to rush it into law in less than a week with little to no discussion. If that’s as bad as it will get, why would he need to do away with representation?

    It seems to me that this is just the opening salvo, and he’s saving the REALLY bad stuff until after the unions are gone.

  31. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    ***The answer is… No, no one’s listening to the guv. Which means, um, *he’s* being taken to school — by the people of Wisconsin.*** A majority of the people of Wisconsin support Walker and I am proud to call my self one of them.

    The other side has a clueless fully indoctrinated fully bribed mob and their victims the students.

    Their are some educated non indoctrinated protesters showing up right about now, The people who pay the for the livelihoods of the ungrateful, See if you can tell the difference.

  32. Have A Nice G.A. says:
  33. Have A Nice G.A. says:
  34. tom p says:

    JJ… you actually said this????: “Not only do they have incredibly good terms of employment — they’re typically guaranteed jobs for life after three years of adequate performance — but they’re generally doing a lousy job educating our kids.”

    “Good terms of employment” means working at sub-standard wages??? Realy?

    As to “generally doing a lousy job educating our kids” what the HELL do you know of trying to form impressionable young minds when the PARENTS…. think an education is a waste of time.????

    Really James, your party says that “people come from monkeys” is a lie (NOT the theory of evolution) that Global Warming is a lie (FACT: Science can not predict the exact consequeces of GW…. it can however note that it is not good)(and PROVE that it is happening)

    YOUR party James, says science is a lie….

    And you blame my sister? For her inability to counter Fox News? And the right wing spin machine??? Your party??? You blame her?

    Really????

    really?

  35. anjin-san says:

    Tom…

    If your sister is a teacher, she is a lazy clock watcher who wants 100k for life of my money without any chance of losing her job. She does not care about kids learning at all.

    They said it on Fox. It must be true.