by Jane Briggs-Bunting
The heart of the fight in Wisconsin is the threat to public employees’ right to unions and collective bargaining. Newly elected GOP governor Scott Walker’s proposal to limit collective bargaining rights for public employees has generated a firestorm of protest. For now the governor is holding firm, saying the state can’t afford the benefits and retirement packages negotiated by the unions for its members.
Other newly elected GOP governors and state houses elsewhere, including Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana and Iowa, are considering similar measures.
The issue resonates particularly in Michigan where thousands of UAW and white collar automotive workers lost wages and benefits over the past few years as two of the former Big Three toppled into bankruptcy. Big Three retirees lost some of their health care and other benefits secured previously by labor contracts.
I’ve been a member of two rather ineffective unions in my career, and jokingly longed for the effectiveness of the Teamsters. My unions would rally the troops, pound on the tables, then settle for little more than what management offered before back-slapping and congratulating themselves on what a wonderful job they’d done.
Unions exist because they were needed at the time of the great labor movements in the early 20th Century. But some unions also grew fat, lazy and corrupt off the backs of their workers. Some spawned years of federal and state criminal investigations into their activities, and a number of union leaders spent much deserved time in prison because of it.
But unions also provided their members with decent wages, health care and pensions. Add the benefits of Social Security and Medicare into the package, and retirees could expect a worry-free lifestyle in their so-called golden years of life.
Happily, that ride into the sunset can last many years longer now due to better health care and longer life spans. But that also comes with a price, particularly in health care.
Public employees have largely escaped the worst of the recent recession. I know folks who have outright lost their jobs in the automotive industry but only a handful of public employees who have endured a few furlough days or cuts to generous retirement incentive packages. And their salaries and benefits, leaving out the automotive economies, were almost competitive with private sector workers. And in many instances, the retirement package was superior.
The gravy train has come to the end of the line. Many states are flat broke. With high unemployment, income tax revenues are down, and so are property taxes. Heck, Congress is even considering a law to allow them to file bankruptcy. That would allow court approved changes in benefits bargained for and gained over decades.
Is it fair? No. But there is no constitutional guarantee that life, taxes or death are fair either.
Likely state governors like Walker would be less likely to throw down this gauntlet if they felt the unions would be willing to acknowledge the problems and bargain realistically. That rarely happens, so the confrontation is inevitable.
In a USA Today/Gallup poll 61% would oppose a law in their own state like that has triggered the protests in Wisconsin and led Democratic lawmakers there to decamp to Illinois while 33% who would favor such a law.
Sadly, the poll also confirmed the disconnect of those interviewed with the realities of the budget crisis facing their state and the nation.
Key results of the poll include::
- 71% oppose increasing sales, income or other taxes while 27% are in favor that approach.
- 53% oppose reducing pay or benefits for government workers while 44% are in favor.
- 48% opposed reducing or eliminating government programs while 47% were in favor of cuts.
At least these protests and discussions will be handled the American way–lots of sign waving, chanting and vociferous debate. Bet the people in Libya would view this as downright civilized. Of course, Governor Walker’s security detail has been beefed up, too.