Feb. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Whatever the outcome, the political earthquake in Wisconsin is exposing fissures in American politics that will play out in the 2012 election and beyond.
Discerning the truth of this story requires holding two seemingly contradictory ideas in one’s mind at once -- that Republican Governor Scott Walker is out of line and that the public employees unions had this coming.
If Walker was honest about his motives, he would be looking better. As a conservative, he wants to neuter the public employees unions by allowing them to negotiate only for wages, not benefits or working conditions. This would effectively smash organized labor in his state.
But Walker can’t say that he’s a union-buster, so he’s pretending that he’s taking drastic action only because his state faces a budget crisis. In fact, Wisconsin is in better shape than most states -- or was, until Walker rammed $117 million in tax cuts for corporations through the legislature, now controlled by the GOP. Those tax cuts take effect in July, making a difficult budget outlook even worse.
Walker’s true intentions were made clear by his hands-off treatment of those police and fire unions that supported his candidacy last year. Their benefits are no more reasonable than those of teachers and state workers, maybe less. This is a power grab. Republicans want the pesky unions that support Democrats out of the way.
The billionaire Koch brothers, whose organization Americans for Prosperity spent $40 million nationwide in the 2010 elections on behalf of the GOP, are pumping money into Wisconsin. If they can cripple collective bargaining there and elsewhere, they can tilt the playing field further in their direction.
This is where conservatives are over-reaching. While President Barack Obama courts the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and unions accept corporate lobbyists as part of the process, the other side doesn’t reciprocate. Even though the unions are now offering huge concessions, Walker and company want to dictate terms, not negotiate. They are using a budget crisis to change the rules.
The same folks who howled when former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said in 2008 that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” are now believers in the concept. They must be stopped. It’s a bad idea to give more power to the same wealthy interests that drove the economy over a cliff.
Yet what makes things complicated is that the conservative critique of government unions is largely accurate. Public employee unions and their mostly (though hardly exclusively) Democratic allies in state legislatures and governors mansions have been taking advantage of taxpayers for 50 years. It’s a form of self-dealing within the government that we’ve taken for granted.
The way collective bargaining in the public sector has worked is simple enough: Unions contribute to candidates and work for them in elections. In exchange, politicians in both parties agree to health-care benefits and pensions that are usually far in excess of what’s possible in the public sector. The bill for these benefits often doesn’t come due until long after they’ve left office. They rationalize it by holding the line on wages, which some studies suggest remain slightly lower than for comparable jobs in the private sector.
But those good private-sector jobs are hard to find. That means that in the ailing communities of Wisconsin and other states, teachers and social welfare workers are often the best-paid people in town. Because they are compensated the same whether they work in Milwaukee or Eagle River, their paychecks go further in rural areas with lower costs of living. And they often pay as little as $100 a month for generous health-care benefits.
Then there are the legal but obnoxious pension games like double-dipping (getting pensions from two different state agencies) and loading up on overtime in one’s final year on the job, which triggers a much more lucrative retirement package.
Even as many states move to eliminate these offensive practices, the unions have, until very recently, resisted. It’s not surprising that those who don’t work for the government -- including many private-sector union members -- resent this. If taxpayers got more for their money -- in better schools and public services -- they would be more supportive.
But of course the schools aren’t preparing our children for the workforce of the 21st century and the teachers’ unions, especially the National Education Association, are defending tenure and seniority systems that protect incompetent teachers and prevent other necessary reforms.
“Public sector unions can’t be immune to thinking about the next generation, not just the next election,” says Andy Stern, former head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Of course, as Stern notes, it’s about the next election for corporate interests, too. That’s why the outcome in Wisconsin is critical. If Walker comes out on top, he will embolden other governors to launch frontal assaults on government unions. The result may be a strengthening of the left, as unions and liberals fight not for lavish benefits and outdated labor practices (those are on their way out) but for their very existence.
Wisconsin galvanized the Democratic base, which will now forget about its disappointments with the president and fight like hell in 2012 just to stay at the table.
(Jonathan Alter is a national correspondent for Newsweek and author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The views expressed are his own.)
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