February 20, 2011

Sunday School 2/20/11: On Wisconsin

While there continue to be protests for and celebrations of freedom around the world,  we’re undergoing our own dramatic protests here at home in Madison, Wisconsin. While it’s not freedom per se that’s on the line, it is about all of the things that make democracy messy. So today’s lesson is on badgering unions in the Badger State. 

Here's the situation in an over-simplified nutshell. Republican Governor Scott Walker is looking for increased contributions to pension and health insurance from the unions, and he’s also looking to remove pretty much everything other than wages from the collective bargaining process. In addition, he’s asking that union dues no longer be deducted from paychecks, and that there be annual elections to ensure that workers really want union representation. The new rules would exempt firefighters and most (but not all) law enforcement officers, but would apply to others, most notably the teachers unions. In the Wisconsin Senate, the Reps have a 19 – 14 majority over the Dems, but need at least one Dem to have a quorum to hold a vote. The Dems are hiding out south of the border in Illinois. Many teachers have left their classrooms to march on Madison; many unionized workers continue to show up to work. Outside protesters from both sides including the Tea Party and Organizing for America have entered the fray. All the bigwigs and usual suspects are chiming in, but today’s predicted bad weather was expected to put a damper on the protests.

Throughout it all, the Governor professes to be sleeping well at night. He also appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

WALLACE: …If it's a money issue and balancing the budget and they are willing to concede on the money issues, why isn't that enough? Why do you also have to take back some of their collective bargaining rights? 

WALKER: Well, they aren't because, in the end, they can say that, but that's really a red herring. The same groups back in December, after election, before I was sworn in, tried to ram through literally in a lame duck session employee contracts that would have locked things in before I got there. So, they're not really… I think it is realistic that we make sure that as loud as the voices are in the capital, we don't let them overpower the voices of the taxpayers I was elected to represent and elected to get the job done, which is balancing this budget.

WALLACE: Well, let's talk about that. You say this is not about the unions. This is about balancing the budget. But your opposition says this is about union busting. So, let's take a look at what is in your plan because beyond making public workers pay more for benefits, here's what your plan would do. It would allow unions to negotiate only over wages, not benefits or work rules. The state would no longer collect union dues and unions would have to win an election every year to keep representing workers.  Isn't that union-busting? 

WALKER: No, absolutely not. Our belief is that we're going to ask more for health care and more for pension contribution which is, by the way, very realistic. 

WALLACE: But, Governor, I want to talk about the specific things about collective bargaining and saying that unions have to hold elections every year and that's what your critics say is union- busting, not the argument about the money issues. 

WALKER: But the two go hand in hand. If we're going to ask our state and local workers who are doing a great job to pay a little bit more, to sacrifice, to help to balance this budget, we should also give them the flexibility saying that for those members, for those workers, who don't want to be a part of the union, if you don't want that deduction each month out of the paycheck, they should be able to get that $500, $600 or in some cases, $1,000 back that they can apply for their health care and their pension contribution. For us, if you want to have democracy, if you want to have the American way, which is allowing people to have a choice, that's exactly what we're allowing there. People see the value, they see the work, they can continue to vote to certify that union and they can continue to voluntarily have those union dues, and write the check out and give it to the union to make their case, but they shouldn't be forced to be a part of this if that's not what they want to do.

Wallace didn’t ask two questions I wish he had. 

First: Governor Walker, do you believe it is right for a person to get the benefits of union membership including wages, pension and health care, but not be a member of the union that obtained those rights?  

Second: Governor Walker, let’s play this out a few years. Assume that employees don’t vote to keep their unions, what happens to wages, pension and health care benefits, does the state of Wisconsin eliminate the 'union' package and replace it with something more similar to what’s common in the private sector?

I'm not the biggest union fan around, by any means, but it would be interesting to know the answer to those questions.