Understanding Wisconsin

Coming from the labor movement, I have a slightly different perspective on what is happening in Wisconsin right now.  Eight days ago, after Governor Scott Walker proposed a sweeping piece of legislation that would severely curtail the collective bargaining rights for some public employees, workers began protesting the move.  I’ve seen many of my colleagues, including my colleagues here on Bearing Drift, blame the unions – saying they’re acting like kindergartners – and try and demonstrate this as yet another reason why unions are at the heart of our economic woes.  These public sector employees are greedy, demanding pay and benefits far outside what the private sector gets, and they’re unwilling to work with Walker to resolve this problem, the story line goes.

That’s simply not the case.  The workers here aren’t protesting because they’re greedy, or  because they expect special privileges.  They’re protesting because Walker has handled this entire situation poorly.  What is happening in Madison didn’t have to happen at all.

There’s a myth about union members and leaders that is pervasive on our side of the aisle – it’s the myth that union members and leaders will fight tenaciously to keep whatever benefits they have and they will never provide concessions, even to the point of allowing companies to fail or taxes to be raised rather than give up what they’ve extorted from employers and the government.  That’s just not true.  I’ve worked in the labor movement for almost a decade now, and there isn’t a single organization that I have worked with that has not worked with companies in bad times to help prevent them from going under.  Whether it’s the airline pilots, the UAW, or even my own folks in maritime, these types of things happen all the time.  And why do they happen?  Because the company sits down with the union, in good faith, and asks for help.

Walker did not do that here.  That’s the problem.  And even now, he’s unwilling to negotiate.

That’s all these workers want – a seat at the table and the ability to negotiate.  That’s what collective bargaining is about.  It’s important to remember that these are public sector, not private sector, workers.  They do not have the right to strike.  They can’t “extort” concessions from the state government. All they can do is talk, and at best, go to arbitration, where a neutral third party will resolve the dispute.  The government has the upper hand here.

What I find most frustrating here – and why I am not willing to buy Walker’s argument that he’s simply trying to do the right thing and balance his budget – is that Walker never attempted to negotiate with the unions before he outlined his plan. The plan has public employees paying half the costs of their pensions and benefits, which Walker says will save the state $300 million over the next two years.  In addition, he wants to take away the right of some public employees – not all, as he’s exempted firefighters and police – to bargain collectively over anything other than wages.  The reason for this legislation is ostensibly to close Wisconsin’s budget shortfall.

That’s simply not true.  Walker’s true intention is to try and bust the public sector unions.  How do I know that? Simple: the unions have specifically told him they are willing to accept all of the financial concessions that he is demanding in order to balance the budget. Here’s the text from an article in today’s Wisconsin State Journal:

“Top leaders of two of Wisconsin’s largest public employee unions announced they are willing to accept the financial concessions called for in Walker’s plan, but will not accept the loss of collective bargaining rights. Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, and Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME Council 24, said in a conference call with reporters that workers will do their fair share to narrow Wisconsin’s budget gap. … “We want to say loud and clear — it is not about those concessions,” Bell said. “For my members, it’s about retaining a voice in their professions.” The two insisted their positions have not changed and Friday’s call was intended to clarify their opposition to Walker’s proposal. Bell, who represents 98,000 educators, and Beil, whose council includes 60,000 members, repeated calls for Walker to sit down with them.”

What was Walker’s response?

No.

The unions were willing to give Walker the tools he needed to balance the budget, so long as he didn’t gut their collective bargaining rights.  He said no. Removing collective bargaining rights for these employees is not going to balance Wisconsin’s budget.  There’s no good reason for him to not accept this deal – unless, of course, he’s not doing this to balance the budget.

It is frustrating to me that the knee-jerk Republican reaction to this story is to praise Walker and to denounce the unions.  While I can’t support some of the things that I’ve seen on the signs these protesters are carrying, I also can’t support a Governor who is unwilling to have a conversation with his own employees, either.

What is happening in Wisconsin didn’t need to happen.  Walker could have gotten his way without going as far as he did, and he doesn’t deserve to be lionized, propped up as a potential VP candidate, or otherwise treated like he’s doing his job well.  He isn’t.  There’s no reason why the State Capitol in Madison has to look like Tahrir Square.  This all could have been avoided with some good old fashioned common sense and a willingness to treat the other side with enough respect to sit down and negotiate.