Wisconsin: What’s Really Happening?

Does anyone really understand the issues involved in the contentious — remember when a few weeks ago we were looking at a new era of civility? — protests taking place in Wisconsin involving public-service employees, unions and, in my view, philosophically the role and reach of government in this country.

I’m not sure, despite my best efforts, that I completely understand what is happening in Wisconsin — and what is about to happen in Ohio and other states as elected officials attempt to reduce government spending, cut pensions and reduce health care expenses, and restrict collective bargaining rights.

One problem is the way this and similar stories are reported: more like an OSU-Wisconsin football game with signs, crowds, music and so on — but absent facts and context. (By the way, I found out yesterday that 24 states already limit or deny entirely collective bargaining rights to public sector unions. But I’ve only seen that mentioned in one article.)

Another is that we may have reached the point where there is just too much information, much of it conflicting. Here’s from an informative NPR article by Linton Weeks, “Media Black Hole: So Much News That We’ll Implode“:

Have you noticed? The news cycle is spinning faster. And faster. Andfasterandfaster.

Congressman Christopher Lee (R-NY) resigns because of a scandal even before the scandal is known to the public. On websites we get Tuesday’s news on Monday. As online commenters, we discuss articles we haven’t read and dis movies we haven’t watched. Google anticipates the stories we want to see even before we know we want to see them. And as one person tweeted recently: “Tunisia’s revolution took four weeks. Egypt: 17 days. Who’s next and how much time do they have?”

When it comes to the news of the day, newspapers, websites, bloggers, cable networks and aggregators all trip over themselves to be the fastest and the first. The competition has always existed, but technology has ramped up the rivalries.

And the point:

Still, with news — and reaction to news — moving more quickly than ever, says Louis Gray, a Silicon Valley blogger who chronicles the ever-increasing speed of computers and companies, “it is safe to assume the public does not know about many top stories or issues, and cannot be assumed to have enough data to ascertain truth versus spin, and right versus wrong.”

As a result, Gray says, “people are intentionally filtering the information they consume through sources they agree with, or are turning instead to entertainment and idle-time activities, becoming less informed.”

Hmm. And I was fretting last week about Lindsay Lohan’s dress. Go figure.

Anyway, back to Wisconsin. Let’s see if we can figure out what is really happening based on the comments of some leading pundits, writing in WaPo and the NYT. Also, my friend Bill Sledzik sent me yesterday an interesting post by Robert Reich on Salon.com that examines this situation from a political perspective nationally.

So here goes — and please remember that I am pulling information out of the context of an entire column or post. And as anyone who has written or graded a research paper knows only too well, that may not prove to be the best or most accurate approach.

Eugene Robinson, WaPo, “Starving Wisconsin’s unions“:

Let’s be clear: The high-stakes standoff in Wisconsin has nothing to do with balancing the state’s budget.

It is about money, though – but only in the sense that money translates into political power. At this point, it’s clear for all to see that Gov. Scott Walker’s true aim is to bust the public employee unions, thus permanently reshaping the political landscape in the Republican Party’s favor.

Democratic state senators who fled the state to forestall Walker’s coup have no choice but to remain on the lam. Protesters who support union rights have no choice but to keep their vigil at the capitol in Madison. This is a big deal.

George Will, WaPo, “Out of Wisconsin, a lesson in leadership for Obama“:

As Milwaukee County executive, he [Wisconsin Gov. Walker] had similar dust-ups with government workers’ unions, and when the dust settled, he was resoundingly reelected, twice. If his desire to limit collective bargaining by such unions to salary issues makes him the “Midwest Mussolini” – some protesters did not get the memo about the new civility – other supposed offenses include wanting state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pension plans (most pay less than 1 percent), which would still be less than the average in the private sector. He also wants them to pay 12.6 percent of the cost of their health care premiums – up from about 6 percent but still much less than the private-sector average.

He campaigned on this. Union fliers distributed during the campaign attacked his “5 and 12” plan. He says his brother, a hotel banquet manager, and his sister-in-law, who works at Sears, “would love to have” what he is offering the unions.

For some of Madison’s graying baby boomers, these protests are a jolly stroll down memory lane. Tune up the guitars! “This is,” Walker says, “very much a ’60s mentality.”

He does, however, think there is sincerity unleavened by information: Many protesters do not realize that most worker protections – merit hiring; just cause for discipline and termination – are the result not of collective bargaining but of Wisconsin’s uniquely strong and century-old civil service law.

“I am convinced,” he says, “this is about money – but not the employees’ money.” It concerns union dues, which he wants the state to stop collecting for the unions, just as he wants annual votes by state employees on re-certifying the unions. He says many employees pay $500 to $600 annually in union dues – teachers pay up to $1,000. Given a choice, many might prefer to apply this money to health care premiums or retirement plans. And he thinks “eventually” most will say about the dues collectors, “What do we need this for?”

Such unions are government organized as an interest group to lobby itself to do what it always wants to do anyway – grow. These unions use dues extracted from members to elect their members’ employers. And governments, not disciplined by the need to make a profit, extract government employees’ salaries from taxpayers. Government sits on both sides of the table in cozy “negotiations” with unions.

Richard Cohen, WaPo, “Government pensions, an obesity epidemic“:

But, really, enough is enough. The Wisconsin state employees who are demonstrating in Madison have my sympathy but not my total support. I recognize that they have offered givebacks, and I recognize, too, that Gov. Scott Walker has gone too far – if not trying to bust the unions, as it is alleged, then surely trying to cripple them. In the manner of Ronald Reagan taking on student demonstrators at Berkeley in 1966, Walker will become the champion of the common man, the Middle American and all of that. This works. Reagan, you might recall, went on to become president.

Reagan personified the disgust many Americans felt toward unruly (and ungrateful) college students. Walker is personifying the feeling of resentment and anger toward government workers who have so gamed the system that some of them retire on larger stipends than the average American makes in salary – and with health care, too. Like Reagan, Walker has tapped into a feeling of disgust – the always-dangerous sense that you and I have played by the rules and saved for our modest retirements, while government workers, on our dime, have run off with pensions they do not deserve. We feel we have been played for a fool.

Charles Lane, WaPo, “For Wisconsin unions, a telling concession“:

Wisconsin public-sector union leaders have offered Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-majority state legislature a deal. The unions will accept all of the fiscal aspects of Walker’s bill: Henceforth members will pay 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions and 12.6 percent of their health-care premiums, up substantially in both areas. All they ask in return is that Walker and the legislature not gut their collective bargaining rights. Sounds statesmanlike, right?

I have my doubts. Certainly, this offer undercuts the unions’ claim that there is no budget crisis in Wisconsin, and that Walker manufactured one as a pretext for union-busting. If there’s no budget crisis, on what possible basis can union leaders instruct their members to give up an estimated $330 million worth of hard-earned, contractually guaranteed benefits over the next couple of years? Are they saying that the rank and file is better off giving up their money now, even though it isn’t necessary to fix the state’s budget, as long as they still have the chance to get the money back at the bargaining table later, maybe?

If that’s the way these guys negotiate, I really wouldn’t want to be a public-sector union member in Wisconsin. If they had the interests of their membership at heart, they would give in on bargaining rights, which can always be restored under a friendlier government later — but keep maximum cash in their members’ pockets here and now.

Looks to me as if Wisconsin’s union leaders have revealed their preference for political power. They want to preserve collective bargaining at all costs, because without it they will lose the flow of dues money. And without dues money, the unions have no political war chests, and without political war chests, they are no longer power brokers in state and local elections.

And David Brooks, NYT, “Make Everybody Hurt“:

Walker’s critics are amusingly Orwellian. They liken the crowd in Madison to the ones in Tunisia and claim to be fighting for democracy. Whatever you might say about Walker, he and the Republican majorities in Wisconsin were elected, and they are doing exactly what they told voters they would do. It’s the Democratic minority that is thwarting the majority will by fleeing to Illinois. It’s the left that has suddenly embraced extralegal obstructionism.

Still, let’s try to put aside the hyperventilation. Everybody now seems to agree that Governor Walker was right to ask state workers to pay more for their benefits. Even if he gets everything he asks for, Wisconsin state workers would still be contributing less to their benefits than the average state worker nationwide and would be contributing far, far less than private sector workers.

The more difficult question is whether Walker was right to try to water down Wisconsin’s collective bargaining agreements. Even if you acknowledge the importance of unions in representing middle-class interests, there are strong arguments on Walker’s side. In Wisconsin and elsewhere, state-union relations are structurally out of whack.

That’s because public sector unions and private sector unions are very different creatures. Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest.

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

OK. Now, about Lindsay Lohan’s dress…

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