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Hyperbolic rhetoric distorts Wisconsin facts

Posted by Feb 22nd, 2011.

Ben DeGrow is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute, focusing on education labor issues.

Plenty of pixels have been expended in the past five days to report and discuss the momentous happenings in Madison, Wisc. Whoever thought the Badger State would receive even more national spotlight so soon after Aaron Rodgers and the Packers secured Super Bowl champion prestige? But it’s worth all the coverage. The significance of unfolding events in Wisconsin’s capital is hard to overestimate.

Start with the fact that Wisconsin was the first state to grant government workers collective bargaining rights (in 1959). Just over half a century later, and the unsustainable trend unleashed is about to get seriously reined in. Ignored was the wisdom of reliably pro-labor Democratic Party icon Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his presidency FDR strenuously resisted the notion of public-sector unionism, famously asserting:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service….The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.

Government worker unions are a different breed than their private-sector counterparts. Commenting on the affair, Time Magazine editor and liberal stalwart Joe Klein ably catches the vital distinction:

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?

The events unfolding in Wisconsin are highly relevant to these pages because teachers unions are among the largest and strongest labor organizations in America. The degree of unions’ political influence can be exaggerated (slightly), but their collective ability to block unwanted policy changes is almost unrivaled.

If you don’t believe me, what other group could get an entire party caucus to flee their legislative duties and hide across state lines in order to forestall a vote that would weaken its legally-protected privileges? As for the unions themselves, they aren’t winning political sympathies from staging sick-outs (“by all means, defend your right to collectively bargain an agreement that you can flout at your convenience”) or getting fake doctors’ notes to cover for them.

But so it goes in Wisconsin. What is it about Senate Bill 11′s attempt to fix a looming $3.6 billion budget hole that drives the protests and the political posturing of opponents? It didn’t take long for Democratic legislators in exile to offer capitulation on the modest and eminently reasonable proposals to increase government workers’ retirement and health insurance contributions.

What else is at stake? A lot of hyperbolic rhetoric has flown around, including some National Education Association talking points that have floated into many Colorado teachers’ email inboxes (e.g., the claim that “educators will have no say in school quality issues,” an irresponsible and self-serving distortion of reality). Amid all the confusion, the other key points of the budget-repair legislation are not precisely understood:

  1. Limiting the scope of collective bargaining to worker salaries, with total negotiated increases above the inflation rate subject to local voter referendum, which would enhance public accountability to one of the largest drivers of government cost and neutralizing the power of arbitrators to reward unions for lavish proposals;
  2. Requiring an annual affirmative opt-in to continue a union’s status as exclusive bargaining representative through a simple majority vote of affected workers, which simply would ensure greater accountability in unions’ claims that they operate democratically; and
  3. Prohibiting government agencies from collecting union dues through member payroll deductions, which would end the cycle of using government resources to raise funds that are used to reward political candidates and perpetuate union power.

Since last week I’ve already been asked more than once: Could or should something like Wisconsin’s Senate Bill 11 be done in Colorado? First of all, apart from the lack of symbolism here, a smaller and less militant government union sector would make such a legislative dispute less dramatic. But more fundamentally, it wouldn’t all work in the Colorado context.

Wisconsin has a long-established and recognized body of public-sector labor law that simply does not exist here. For Colorado state legislators to have some mandated public school (or other) collective bargaining procedures to alter or remove, there would have to be something enshrined in state statute in the first place. Since there isn’t, agenda items 1 and 2 would make very little sense for a Colorado lawmaker to introduce. The third item, on the other hand, is not inextricably linked to the union negotiating process. A repeat of 2008′s citizen-initiated Amendment 49 (sponsored by the Independence Institute where I work) doubtless still would draw more dues funds spent on outrageous and misleading advertising.

The proposals championed by Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans would not wash away workers’ rights. Rather, they would open the door to fiscal sustainability by providing greater flexibility to elected government officials and restoring some power and accountability to taxpaying citizens. Wisconsin is receiving a large share of attention for good reason: A few states are following suit, and others soon may jump in.

Driven by the overwhelming fiscal crisis facing most state governments, what’s taking place in the Badger State looks to be a watershed. The Tea Parties are flexing their muscles, while politically-reinforced government employee unions are making a Waterloo-like stand. An identical repeat in Colorado is off the table, but local school boards may be impelled to take a closer look at negotiated policies that empower union interests over the public interest.

Popularity: 17% [?]

15 Responses to “Hyperbolic rhetoric distorts Wisconsin facts”

  1. Mark Sass says:

    I love how tea partiers and Walker are portrayed as taking on the politically advantaged Dems and union members. The unions represent a collective (there, I said it) of state citizens as well as public employees. They should have a voice in the process. Juxtapose this “advantaged” group against the political and financial supporters of Gov. Walker. One of his supporters actually met with the governor to prepare for his attack on public employees. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/us/22koch.html?_r=1

    According to the Times: “Even before the new governor was sworn in last month, executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown, Mr. Phillips said in an interview on Monday.”

    Mr. Phillips heads the Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by over $40 million from the Koch brothers. They gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Walker campaign.

    Do the unions give money to political candidates? You bet. At least we know who they are. At least unions represent more than the thoughts of two wealthy people who have made it their mission to crush public unions. Yes, they have a collective ability to influence public policy (to a certain extent), isn’t that how a democracy is supposed to work? The will of the majority?

    The median salary for a public employee is $45K, and the avarage pension is $19K. What an outrage!

  2. David Hazen says:

    The big problem in Wisconsin is that public employees already make 7-10% less than comparably educated private employees. People sacrifice to work in the public sector.

  3. Michael Merrifield says:

    Given DeGrow’s and the Independence Institutes hatred of ALL unions and anything union related, the hypocrisy behind the statement “government workers are a different breed than their private-sector counterparts” is laughable. Also, “the claim that “educators will have no say in school quality issues” is an irresponsible and self-serving distortion of reality”. Really? I spent 30 years in the classroom. Before I was a member of the teachers’ union I had just that much say on school quality issues…none. After becoming a member I joined with my fellow teachers to make many positive changes to classroom conditions, for BOTH students AND teachers.

  4. Jeffrey Miller says:

    “What is it about Senate Bill 11′s attempt to fix a looming $3.6 billion budget hole that drives the protests and the political posturing of opponents?”

    Well, you could start with supplying budget numbers accurately. Your number is not the hole for this year–it is just over $100 million, almost the same number Walker gave out in tax breaks the minute he assumed office at the beginning of the year. It’s only 3.6 billion if one projects current realties forward–if they come to pass. And yes, I know, you didn’t say it was for this year alone–that’s the problem, and Fox news omits that inconvenient little detail as well.

    There is no reason to take away bargaining rights. Plenty of other states have fixed their budgets without having to alter a 50 year old accommodation with labor. The Governor prefers his way or the highway and refused to negotiate. Even now, Walker is threatening to fire people if the Democrats do not come back to vote. This is just bad governance, quite cowardly, really. Republicans and teapartiers should be concerned a Democratic governor and legislature may one day play fast and loose with their interests–karma can be unforgiving.

    Don’t like the NEA’s hyperbole? I agree, but Walker’s whole issue is to diminish union power and it may be fair to say that if partisan political hacks win this round, they will not stop to gain greater control over public schools. If you disagree Walker has it in for unions, you have not read his record. Your Joe Klein is all the more inane because public unions ever more face the specter of corporate interests funding political campaigns. The Citizens United ruling is rapidly altering the balance of power between the middle class/labor and those with money and power.

  5. Elena Campbell says:

    I’ve carefully read the article and the comments in response. I’m no fan of the Koch brothers who, just as the unions, use government as proxy for their own personal ends. That said, I wonder how it is that the public sector can remain in la-la land. The private sector is hurting.

    If the people in the private sector are lucky enough to still have jobs, I know of very few who aren’t doing far more work for the same or less pay because of layoffs. The private sector funds the public sector.

    Hello! This isn’t rocket science. When the private sector contracts, so too must the public sector. This is an age-old problem with government: it expands during boom times and refuses to give up ground during bust times. Just tax the “rich” more. And where might that arbitrary number for the “rich” be designated? And what dampening effect might that have on small to mid-size employers to hire and innovate? These employers are already sucking wind.

    States are broke. Our National government is beyond broke. It is 13 trillion in debt (truly that number is unfathomable) not counting future liabilities. We are on the precipice, not just as individual States, but as a nation. If we don’t haul in the mainsail NOW, this little feud will seem insignificant compared to what will inevitably follow. Wake Up!

    And by the way, Mark Sass, we are a Republic, not a Democracy. Our Founders knew the dangers of a “majority rules” society because such a society becomes a lawless society. Pray tell that you do not teach civics.

    • Mike Spalding says:

      Thanks for a well thought out response to the many negative comments. I have friends and relatives who are working much more for the same pay or who are unemployed. And yet government employment is skyrocketing and pensions are increasing. Every private job produces wealth for our society. Most public jobs expend that wealth. If we continue to expand the public, there won’t be enough private left to support our society.

      • Chad Hauser says:

        Pensions are increasing? What world do you live in? Public jobs help to fuel the middle class of this country which is what makes America great. Us “leaches” on society spend quite a bit of money in the economy and provide services that the public needs. Do you think you could live a good life without road crews, police, firefighters, and teachers? Good luck. I could survive just fine without many businesses in the private sector.
        There are plenty of teachers and policemen that are unemployed in this country at this time. Look things up before you make your “well thought out response”. I am guessing you are not a teacher – perhaps an administrator? :)

    • Jeffrey Miller says:

      “I’m no fan of the Koch brothers who, just as the unions, use government as proxy for their own personal ends.”
      As you insist, this is a republic. People vote, voters are influenced, favors are produced. Except for perhaps the private sector who are selfless in their pursuit of the American dream–if I read you correctly. All Americans take risks in life and all of us contribute to the betterment of our nation. As a teacher, I made a decision to allow the government to defer some of my compensation until retirement so as to make funding education an easier proposition so, don’t lecture any of us about how the private sector is all that.

      “Just tax the “rich” more. And where might that arbitrary number for the “rich” be designated?”

      Well, you could ask Reagan, as he raised taxes on the rich. Or, Bush 41 who did as well. I think the rich have the money and they have been given nothing but tax cuts for 10 years and this is what we have for an economy? Listen, spending on government workers didn’t get us into this predicament, deregulation of financial accounting rules, irresponsible investment schemes by large banks, two unnecessary wars and massive tax breaks for the richest Americans got us into this predicament.

      We’ve been “beyond broke” before–it was called the 1980s. I remember quite well the dire predictions of the end times, the books written proclaiming the decline of America, etc… And it seems to me Clinton balanced the budget and gave Bush 43 a 2 trillion surplus. To be fair, Clinton also promoted the financial deregulation under Republican pressure that set us up for this mess and Bush 43 did nothing but push it into high gear.

    • Chad Hauser says:

      Elena – no matter what the founding fathers wanted, America is often/usually considered to be a democratic republic or a representive democracy.
      Since you seem to know civics, perhaps you know about how this country has gotten out of deep deficits before. Taxes. After WWII, the very rich were taxed at an incredible 95%. Even after that, they remained quite rich. In today’s world, the rich control the governement so they get every loop-hole possible so they can keep their money. Crushing unions so that corporations can get huge tax breaks just isn’t smart “business”.

  6. Kathy Hansen says:

    Hey there, Ben.
    The part of the bill I would support in Colorado was a portion of your #2:
    “Requiring an [annual] affirmative opt-in to continue a union’s status as exclusive bargaining representative through a simple majority vote of affected workers.”
    While I wouldn’t pay to do this annually, I would support an affirmative election process on some reasonable periodic basis, precisely because (as you said) CO has no public sector union law. Recognized unions cannot necessarily demonstrate majority support of exclusively-represented workers, either as opposed to Union B or to No Union At All, which to me really does seem “undemocratic.”

  7. Ben says:

    Mark, you say “The unions represent a collective (there, I said it) of state citizens as well as public employees.” How on earth does any kind of union represent the interests of the general public? Because that sounds pretty far-fetched to me.

    David, The AFL-CIO study you cite has one or two flaws going for it: http://blog.american.com/?p=27439

    Elena and Mike, You made some key points more eloquently than I did here.

    Kathy, Interesting point. While we may not agree on everything, it’s arguments like yours that make me hopeful to see the specific policies proposed in Wisconsin being argued on their individual merits, rather than in a sea of hyperbole (on both sides).

    • Mark Sass says:

      Ben, my point was the state employees are state citizens. Not that they represent all citizens. Their voice should not be denied because they are members of a union any more than any other citizen.

      • Ben says:

        Thanks for the clarification, Mark. There is nothing in your statement I can disagree with. There is also nothing in Wisconsin SB 11 (or even in the more extreme case of the handful of states where public employee collective bargaining is prohibited) that would diminish the voice of any state or other public employee to make it worth less than any other citizen’s voice. Collective bargaining for government workers is a statutory privilege that gives unions more power. Limiting that privilege, as Walker seeks to do, or even taking it away altogether does nothing to deprive any government worker of fundamental political rights.

  8. Mark Sass says:

    It is worth noting that public sector employees are paid similar compensation regardless if they are unionized or not.

    Mike, I’d like to see some eveidence that public sector employement is “skyrocketing.” it ain’t true.

    Elena Campbell, a republic is a form of democracy. No need to pray. And the majority does win in electoral politics.

  9. jeff buck says:

    Public unions are organized against the might and greed of the public?! That’s just absurd.

    Public unions are organized to stabilize a system buffeted by randomly changing, often gusty political winds and the wildly varying competence of bureaucrats. If people expect any predictability in the public services they depend upon, such stability is very important and in the public interest.

    Of course, a complex system with strong stabilizing feedbacks will tend to be conservative, ie. it will work to maintain its equilibrium state. Reformers use “status quo” as a pejorative describing this feature of complex systems but it turns out to be both useful and important; ask anyone whose body is having a hard time maintaining homeostasis, for example.

    So, we have to decide, do we want predicable outcomes or radical change? We cannot have it both ways. Real change will take us into a period of unpredictable outcomes which we hope but cannot guarantee will turn out to be better. We can guarantee the transition to a different stable state will be chaotic. Predictable outcomes will come from doing what we’ve been doing.

    Public sector employment did skyrocket under the last Republican administration during which G. W. Bush ironically presided over the largest expansion of our federal government I think ever. I believe public sector employment is now shrinking with the rest of it though I’d be open to actual statistics showing that to be wrong. I’ve read about fire departments going volunteer, police force cutbacks, city worker furloughs and bankrupt cities. Teachers are getting laid off. Where is the growth? Maybe in HSA somewhere or DoD?

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