Over 20 years, unions have steadily lost more and more political clout as membership has declined sharply and public opinion has turned against them. But in his obscene display of arrogance and rigid ideology, Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker may have inadvertently triggered a labor resurgence in America with his efforts to destroy union bargaining rights.
Under a fraudulent and patently dishonest guise of tackling the state’s budget problems, Walker has crafted legislation that would level a vicious body-blow to the most important component of political infrastructure the Democratic Party has in that part of the country. His insistence on ending almost all of the collective bargaining rights of public workers has nothing to do with budget shortfalls or job creation, and everything to do with transparent partisan politics.
In fact, unions have agreed to give Walker every single penny he’s asked for in concessions, but he refuses to budge on the collective bargaining issue, which he claims (inaccurately) contributes to over-spending and exorbitant salaries. (It also doesn’t help Walker’s case that he’s excluded specific unions from the bill that supported his candidacy.)
The reality is that studies have shown states that have adopted collective bargaining rights see maybe a 5 percent increase in salaries, not enough to make a very significant impact on state budgets. And while all the focus during this debate has been on salaries, pensions and health care, collective bargaining is used for other issues as well, like classroom size and even bullet-proof vests for police officers, making this recent conservative demonization of labor even more misguided.
In fairness, Walker made legitimate requests for concessions. Union employees across the country have to start paying more into their health care plans and pensions. But eroding bargaining rights is a massive overreach, and many of Walker’s fellow Republican governors recognize that, even some on the extreme far right like Rick Perry of Texas, who has stopped short of endorsing Walker’s plan.
I’ve been critical of unions in the past, especially teachers unions. Seniority is often the dominant factor in rewarding workers instead of quality and efficiency. But this coordinated and sophisticated assault on unions and public workers has gone way too far, and polls show that the American people do not support it.
In Wisconsin, Walker has isolated himself and proven to be an leader incapable of compromise, and drunk on an imaginary mandate that he inexplicably believes his modest victory last fall affords him. He never campaigned on the collective bargaining issue, and if he had, it probably wouldn’t have been received very well in a state with such deep labor roots.
But now he’s broadened that “mandate” and the Republicans have managed to skillfully frame the debate as hard-working tax payers vs. lazy and greedy union bogeymen. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the laughably unelectable Republican presidential hopeful even went so far as to describe public workers like teachers and cops as the “privileged elite” last week. Mitch Daniels! This is the dick who, as George W. Bush’s OMB Director, helped architect the worst economy since the Great Depression and oversaw a widening fissure between working Americans and the truly elite.
It’s unclear how long the Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate can block passage of this mean and unreasonable bill, but the protesters in Madison don’t look like they’re going anywhere soon, the American people have clearly sided with the Unions, and Walker is beginning to behave like more of a detached dictator than a governor of a state in which union families make up at least a quarter of his constituency. If he was a real leader he’d spread the sacrifice all around instead of demanding concessions only from his political adversaries.
But that seems unlikely.
Conservatives always need a bogeyman, and apparently public workers are the flavor of the month.