February 27, 2011

Sunday School 2/27/11: Wisconsin Newspaper Front Pages

Here's how the press is covering the scene in Madison, where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker continues to refuse to negotiate with unions on collective bargaining rights, where Senate Democrats continue to hang out in Illinois and where thousands of protesters, including famous folks like native son Bradley Whitford (notable for The West Wing) and Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary, continue to fight the governor.  All of these front pages are courtesy of the Newseum, a website I encourage you to visit.

The Wisconsin State Journal, in Madison: Anatomy of a Protest: 'It began with a simple march and evolved into a national fight for labor rights. Today we dissect the movement.'  The paper's going in-depth on the whole issue, and also notes that yesterday's protest was the largest yet.

The Wausau Daily Herald:  Protest Numbers Swell. Wausau firefighters, cops join massive gathering in Madison. This paper's 'tag line' for the whole issue is 'Wisconsin in Turmoil'.

Green Bay Press-Gazette: Calling for Change. "These people are not going to go away" is one article, underneath a giant photo of the crowd in Madison. Two other front-page articles are also interesting.  One notes that a recall effort kicked off to remove one of the 14 Dems waiting things out in Illinois - and that opponents and proponents of the recall were present and accounted for.  The other article focuses on Wisconsin being turned into a 'GOP state', with the Reps in control of both houses and the Governor's office.

The Journal-Times, from Racine: Return of Strife? Experts fear teacher strikes if collective bargaining changes. This article and a smaller one reference a teachers' union strike back in the late 70's. On the paper's website, there's one of those instant polls asking "What's your opinion of the Senate Democrats' decision to flee the state?" Over 53% approve, while less than 45% disapprove.

The Herald Times Reporter, serving Manitowoc County: 'Best Opportunity is Now', according to one state Assemblyman (the only Independent), who thinks the Dems should come home and face Gov. Walker and tell him "you're going to win, but here are some things you should consider as you win."  He also indicated he had no idea the Reps were "going to go totally nuclear on a moment's notice" which is how he decided the call for a vote in the wee hours of the morning.

The Oshkosh Northwestern: Protesters will have to Exit Capitol Today, noting that the plan is to close the building late this afternoon and return to normal hours tomorrow.  Another article touches on the difficulties the local schools are facing between the anticipated reduction in state aid and their own issues of overdue building maintenance and needing a new school.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel offers A House Divided, talking about the 'divisive split' across the state on Walker's budget-repair plan. They also focus on how the country has turned its eyes on Wisconsin in an article titled 'Remarkable fight sparks national interest.'

From Fond du Lac, The Reporter references a State of Anxiety, as the Capitol prepares to close. They also have an interview with their freshman Assemblyman, who was hit in the face with a cup of water childishly thrown by a Dem after the vote to approve the bill.

As of now, about an hour after the Capitol was supposed to close, protesters are still present, drums still playing, and it's not clear when people will actually leave.  It's a fascinating story that will be talked about and analyzed long after the battle is over.

February 23, 2011

Union busting by any other name would smell as bad

I initially found myself a little conflicted on the whole Wisconsin union thing. At first it sort of made sense to me that union members should not be immune to the financial issues the rest of us are dealing with. In fact, tonight at dinner, a friend spoke of being a bit ambivalent, of wanting to see government workers sacrifice as the rest of us have. 

I confess I’m not a union member, and for the most part I think that’s been beneficial to me throughout my career. I’m not in a dangerous profession; I’ve been fortunate to work for companies that provided decent wages and benefits; and I’ve been rewarded as an employee that works hard and does a good job for the company and its customers.

My close encounters with union members have been pretty typical, I think. Some have been very pro-union, supportive of their union leadership, politically in sync, buying union-made (ideal) or American-made (next best thing). Others appreciated the benefits, but were of a completely different political stripe. Some accepted membership but were not actively involved, taking more of a go-with-the-flow approach. And some, like my Mom and Dad, tried to balance what was good for the union with what was good for everyone else, through their work on negotiating and curriculum committees.

Would they have been better off if they hadn’t been union? Would their work conditions, salary and benefits, and future security have been better or worse, without their respective unions?

It’s hard to say for sure, but I suspect none of them would be happy with what’s happening in Wisconsin. You’ve got Governor Scott Walker pretending that he’s simply trying to balance the budget, by asking for wage and benefit concessions – but he refuses to accept that the unions will make those concessions. He wants to make it impossible for unions to negotiate anything other than wages, which he also wants to cap. And of course there's stopping the automatic deduction of union dues from paychecks, and annual recertification.

Then it broke that Walker had been 'pranked' by a blogger who pretended to be a wealthy conservative donor.  Recordings of the call between Walker and a man he thought was David Koch make it really clear that this is not about balancing the budget; it’s clearly about breaking the unions. 

You’ve got a politician talking to out of state donors at the same time he's complaining about out of state protesters. 

You’ve got a guy complaining about unions spending taxpayer dollars lobbying for more spending of taxpayer dollars – which frankly is no different from the Chamber of Commerce or any other business group that takes our hard earned dollars and spends them freely trying to get deals from governors, senators, and other politicians of all stripes. Including the businesses who apparently are on the receiving end of some healthy tax breaks in Wisconsin.

You've got a governor talking about the tactics he and his party are considering using to scam their way into passage of the legislation, at the same time he's complaining about the tactics used on the other side to prevent passage. 

It's a mess, but I no longer feel ambivalent.

The fact that it was a call from an alternative online newspaper, not from a donor, makes it more entertaining, but no less disheartening. Listen to the recording here, or read the transcript here.

February 20, 2011

Sidebar: Walker and Wisconsin

How did Scott Walker get elected? Wisconsin’s previous governor, Dem Jim Doyle, did not seek re-election; Walker ran against former US Representative Tom Barrett, and won by a margin of 52-47%.
Not surprisingly, the categories where he had a significant margin over Barrett are the ones you would expect a Rep to win: males, (including men with children); people making at least $50K; folks without advanced degrees; non-union households; Tea Party supporters; and suburban and rural voters.  However, he was handily beaten in Milwaukee County, where he made the same kind of changes he’s proposing now at the State level when he was County Executive. 
Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) indicated Walker was doing exactly what he promised he’d do if elected. According to Graham, Walker campaigned on a promise to “challenge collective bargaining because it…impedes progress when it comes to education. It’s too hard to fire anybody, it’s too complicated. And I’m going to change the system.” To Graham’s point, “in a democracy when you run on something, you do have an obligation to fulfill your promise,” and so Walker is not taking people by surprise. 
As part of the same conversation, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) noted that “If you think this is just about money and the budget, then you might believe that Cesar Chavez was just working to get a couple pennies more per pound for grapes or that Martin Luther King was really working for access to hotels and restaurants.”
There will certainly be more to come on this one.

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.

February 19, 2011

The simplest gift on Dad's birthday

A friend of mine had an interesting Facebook status the other day. She questioned why our loved ones in heaven don’t give us a real sign, a slap-us-upside-the-head kind of sign, to let us know that everything’s going to be OK. Instead, we’re left with these subtle ‘maybe it’s a sign, maybe it’s really just gas’ kind of things that we struggle to interpret. I thought of that status message again this morning, because today Dad would have been 82.

Dad was never really big on religion - truth be told, he'd probably be wondering why I'm even talking about religion and his birthday in the same conversation. We went as a family, when my brothers and I were kids, to the local Methodist church. I don’t remember when or why we officially stopped going; I do remember attending long enough to get my own bible, but I can’t remember exactly how I did that, I think it was a combination of age and church school, not sure. Although my Mom continues to be very active in the same church, for some reason none of us kids maintained a connection, and neither did Dad. 

To this day, I struggle with prayer – I’m not sure how to go about it, or what words to use, or what to ask for, and in the end I feel so awkward in the process that I don’t do it much. I find a certain peace when I’m in a church, in the music and the architecture and the beauty of old stained glass windows. But I keep people ‘in my thoughts’ versus keeping them ‘in my prayers’ because thinking makes more sense to me, I guess, than faith. Knowing how much Dad loved traditional hymns, Handel’s Messiah, 'Simple Gifts' and the like, I suspect he’d agree. 

But while I struggle with religion, I understand the ‘show me a sign’ concept that my friend Diane was talking about. There are times when we just want to hear from those who’ve left us. We want to know that they’re still out there, watching over us, providing us the same love and guidance as they did when they were here. And that’s how I woke up this morning, thinking about Dad, comforted by those thoughts, and thinking about signs.

Am I doing OK, Dad? Am I on the right path? And am I missing signs that I should be seeing?  I sure hope I’m doing you proud – that’s both the simplest and the best birthday present I can give you. I also hope that if I’m not, you’ll send me one of those unmistakable signs (kind of like you did when I rode my bike into the charcoal grill) and put me back on track.

Happy Birthday!

February 13, 2011

Sunday School 2/13/11: John Boehner, David Gregory play dodge ball

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) chatted with David Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press. They talked about Egypt, a concern that radicals don’t end up in charge, and that he, as well as others in Washington, was surprised by what transpired over the past few weeks. On the budget, he believes the House Republicans have met the promise to cut $100 billion in their first year in charge, as promised in the Pledge to America (even though it took some pressure from Tea Partiers and other freshmen to get there). When pushed by Gregory if the cuts are too much for the fragile economy, Boehner answered “David, David, we’re broke…When are we going to get serious about cutting spending?”  He also indicated that there’re more coming, including defense and entitlements, and that there’s “no limit to the amount of money that our members want to cut.”   

And then things got interesting. Gregory pressed Boehner on why he doesn’t stop talk from his party that President Obama wasn’t born in America or that he’s a Muslim, when Boehner himself is comfortable that neither of those two statements is true.  

Gregory: “As the speaker of the House, as a leader, do you not think it's your responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance?” Boehner: “David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. There's a lot of information out there, people read a lot of things...”

Gregory: “I mean, you are the leader in Congress and you're not standing up to obvious facts and saying, "These are facts.  If you don't believe that, it's nonsense."” Boehner: “I just outlined the facts as I understand them.  I believe that the president is a citizen.  I believe the president is a Christian. I'll take him at his word.”

Gregory: “But that kind of ignorance about whether he's a Muslim doesn't concern you?” Boehner: “Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think.  I can't--it's not my job to tell them.”

Gregory: “You shouldn't stand up to misinformation or stereotypes?” Boehner: “...But I've made clear what I believe the facts are.”

Gregory: “But is it because it weakens the president politically, it seeks to delegitimize him that you sort of want to let it stay out there?”  Boehner: “No.  What I'm trying to do is to do my job.  Our job is to focus on spending.”

So, spending, in the eyes of the Speaker, is only about dollars and not about sense?

February 11, 2011

Sidebar: Buerkle Shining Brightly

When Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Regulations asked to hear from businesses regarding "existing and proposed regulations that have negatively impacted job growth”, he got quite a few responses.
  • Requiring businesses to disclose CEO pay compared to what the typical worker is paid.  
  • Rewarding whistleblowers for alerting the SEC about corporate fraud. 
  •  Requiring companies to post notices informing workers of their rights under federal labor law. 
  •  Limiting hazardous air pollutant emissions from industrial boilers and solid-waste incinerators. 
  • Potentially protect drinking water from hydro-fracking.
  • Requiring mining companies to disclose information about mine safety and health standards.
I admit I struggled to make the job-loss connection on a few of these, such as the CEO pay issue.  But then I learned that the Business Roundtable objected to this reg, stating not only would it be hard to determine the ratio, but that "It could potentially cause companies to take actions that result in less employment, such as outsourcing, to produce better ratios.”  


February 10, 2011

Buerkle Shining Brightly?

A recent article in my local newspaper highlighted Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY), who co-sponsored a bill that seeks to allow consumers to continue purchasing incandescent light bulbs, which are to be phased out beginning next year. The phase-out comes from the Energy Independence and Security Act, passed in 2007 during the Bush administration. The bill she co-sponsored is called BULB, or Better Use of Light Bulbs. Not sure where the ‘better use’ comes in, but the name is way cooler than EISA. 

The issue with the bulbs, from Buerkle’s perspective, is that choice is being taken away from those who prefer the old bulbs, and that the government shouldn’t tell us what light bulbs to use. In addition, the Reps in the House are adamant about getting rid of regulations that they feel cost us jobs, such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (which they refer to as the Jobs-Killing Health Care Law), which was the highest priority in January.

Regarding BULB, Buerkle indicated “I think the biggest issue with this bill is what it does for jobs.” She adds “If we’re talking about creating jobs and getting our economy back on track, that’s a big piece.” 

The House is insisting that every bill include a reference to what portion of the Constitution authorizes the legislation. That, coupled with their ‘jobs is job one’ prioritization lead me to suggest that in addition to including the constitutionality, they should include the number of jobs that will be created as a result of the bills they pass.

Buerkle also “has been reluctant” , according to the article, to define which regulations she feels should be off-limits from review by the new Congress. Asked whether regs tied to health, the environment or safety should be excluded, she responded (and I’m not making this up) “The key here is not what I think – it’s what the business owners think.” Seriously? “I tell them that Darrell Issa (R-CA, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Regulation) has charged us to go out and talk to people about what regulations are impeding their success.” 

So that brings me to my second question: Can you remember a time when a newly elected representative so quickly abandoned any pretense of thinking for herself?

February 6, 2011

Sunday School 2/6/11: Ronald Reagan's birthday edition

There was a lot of discussion about the situation in Egypt, as expected, but I thought there’d be a little more about Ronald Reagan, since this would have been The Great Communicator’s 100th birthday. Only NBC's Meet the Press held a little Reagan party. 

Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan (the real Great Communicator?), Willie Brown (former California politico) and James Baker (Chief of Staff and former Secretary of State) joined David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell from the newly renovated and updated Reagan Library. Among the highlights of their conversation: Baker thought Reagan would be OK with the Tea Party, but also pointed out that Reagan knew how to reach across the aisle, pointing out that he’d “…rather get 80% of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying.”  Doesn't sound much like the Tea Partiers to me, how about you?

Brown mentioned that Obama is a true admirer of Reagan, but didn’t get to show it because of his overwhelming majorities in Congress, but Baker disagreed, noting that Obama didn’t send his own bills to Congress, he ‘subcontracted them out’ to the liberals, and Reagan would never have made that mistake. What Reagan did differently, he put up his own bills, and allowed them to be tweaked by members of his own party as well as by the Dems.  Baker also referenced Reagan’s time as head of the Screen Actors Guild as being helpful in developing his negotiating skills. 

Specifically on Reagan the person, not so much Reagan the president, Noonan recalled the day of the assassination attempt and Reagan’s joke before surgery “I just hope all of you are Republicans.” The doctor, a liberal Dem, answered “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.”   

I’ll end with another great Reagan quote: "Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first." 

He rarely spoke truer words.