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Posted at 4:30 PM ET, 03/ 2/2011


By Charles Lane

Various polls on the clash in Wisconsin show that the public is more hostile to Republican Gov. Scott Walker's push against public-sector unionism than the governor probably expected. Greg Sargent may slightly overstate the degree of opposition; one question in the CBS/New York Times poll stacked the deck against Walker by framing the issue as one of "taking away" "rights." Also, a PPP poll had the unions ahead of Walker 51 percent to 47 percent - a mere half-percentage point outside the poll's 3.5 percent margin of error. Probably the most accurate description of public opinion is that people are - surprise! - deeply polarized. But there's no denying the evidence that Walker's running behind.

Why? As Josh Kraushaar perceptively argues, Walker has failed to present his plan as a broad government reform measure rather than a budgetary fix. This isn't about whether public-sector workers are over or under-paid - a how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin question if there ever was one. Plainly some are under-paid and some are over-paid, but as long as unions are in control of salaries, hiring and firing government agencies will find it difficult to compensate employees according to relatively objective indices of merit, rather than seniority. Walker should skip the antiseptic rhetoric about giving local governments "tools" to manage their budgets and tell the people that this is a fight to put them back in charge of vital public services, especially education.

In hindsight, the governor erred by planning a lightning strike on the legislature without anticipating that Democratic senators would stage a mass bug-out to Illinois. That has given unions and other opponents time and space to blast their version of events through the media and loud demonstrations - unhindered by the National Guard or even, for the most part, the police, contrary to some of the more demagogic pronouncements we heard early in the crisis. Who cares if the walkout flies in the face of the usual progressive opposition to filibusters and other minoritarian obstruction? Ezra Klein deserves some credit for owning up to the contradiction on this point and has even suggested that the Wisconsin Democratic senators should come back after a "couple of days" worth of debate and protest. He wrote that two weeks ago. Time's up?

In the absence of a clearer reform message from Walker, gauzy rhetoric about the "right" to collective bargaining, "worker power" and the like has dominated, obscuring the sometimes grubby realities of public-sector unionism. Consider the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association's struggle for Viagra coverage under its members' taxpayer-supported health plan.

Back in 2002, the union bargained for, and won, six of these little pick-me-up pills per month in health plans that insure 10,000 school system employees, dependents and retirees. By 2004, more than a thousand people were getting erectile dysfunction medications, at a cost of $207,000 per year. In 2005, the school system pushed back and a neutral arbitrator ended the benefit, over union objections.

But the struggle for social justice had just begun. In 2008, the union filed a complaint before a state commission, alleging that the denial of taxpayer-funded erectile dysfunction medications constituted unlawful gender discrimination against men.

I am not making this up.

After a couple of years, and much tedious argumentation, the Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission ruled against the union. Undaunted, the union filed a lawsuit in state court in July 2010, insisting that its male members (sorry) were victims of discrimination. School system attorneys insisted that the union's claim was improper, in part on procedural grounds: It seems that state law requires proof that some individual has been discriminated against, but no one who suffered from the, uh, condition, that Viagra treats had come forward (sorry, again). Officials also projected that restoring the benefits could cost up to three-quarters of a million dollars per year.

Extensive briefing, by government lawyers and the union's outside counsel, ensued - until, on January 26 of this year, the union suddenly asked the judge to drop the case. Talk about an anti-climax.

Who knows how many man-hours and dollars the school district and the union wasted before the latter finally said "never mind"? Nor is it clear why the union gave up, though the timing - just two weeks before Walker announced his budget repair bill - is noteworthy. (The union's lawyer and its spokesman did not return my calls seeking comment.)

It is clear, however, that during much of this squabble, Milwaukee's schools were battling budget problems driven in part by the cost of employee benefits. Just three months before the union filed its case in state court last year, the school district sent layoff notices to 482 teachers. I don't contend that this is a typical instance of public-sector union behavior; but it's not totally atypical either. It is the kind of bureaucratic irrationality to which our state and local governments will be vulnerable without genuine reform. These are ills you can't treat with a pill.

By Charles Lane  | March 2, 2011; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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Agreed that Walker did not help himself by not explaining in greater detail the flexibility afforded by limiting collective bargaining. Mitch Daniels' experience provides an example of being able to significantly increase efficiency and decrease costs after rescinding collective bargaining rights. He finally started explaining how $68 million annually could be saved if school districts were free to choose a health carrier other than the union's captive company.

Posted by: jpfred | March 2, 2011 5:08 PM | Report abuse

I don't think anyone, including the union members themselves, is claiming that unions have not crossed some lines into the "silly zone" on benefits.
But the core principle, that public employees get a seat at the table when increases and decreases to their compensation are discussed, should be inviolate. These folks are also members of the community they serve, and have a stake in the strength of that community.

Posted by: OldUncleTom | March 2, 2011 5:15 PM | Report abuse

OldUncleTom, why should public employees have these "inviolate" rights when nobody else does?

Posted by: Itzajob | March 2, 2011 5:40 PM | Report abuse

OldUncleTom, why should public employees have these "inviolate" rights when nobody else does?

Posted by: Itzajob |
Itzajob, the problem isn't that the public employees have these rights, it is that private employees don't. Think about it...

Posted by: dfritzin | March 2, 2011 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Baby, meet Bathwater.... Fights over ED meds might be over-the-top, but taking away all power to bargain over working conditions is not the answer. If Walker gets his way, 50-student classrooms loom for the teachers, nevermind all the other bargaining units of all the other unions who have much to be concerned about.

Posted by: horgman | March 2, 2011 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Dfritzin, that's exactly my point. Certain things (medical care, a reasonable existence after one ceases to be able to work, no matter how long that turns out to be) ought to be equally available to everyone by law, not limited to a special class protected by a historical anachronism.

But reform will never happen as long as the fig leaf of unions exists.

Posted by: Itzajob | March 2, 2011 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Dfritzin, here's another point.

Have you ever worked for a major corporation which had both unionized and non-unionized workforces?

I did, in the mid-late 90s and early 00s. What happened was, non-union benefits (pension, retirement healthcare, regular healthcare) were steadily cut, so that union benefits could be not only preserved but also increased on schedule per the contract. Non-union employees were laid off, while union employees kept their jobs. When the company was eventually acquired by another, the acquiror had to negotiate a deal with the union, while everyone else who remained lost their jobs.

That's what it looks like when some people pay the freight for other people's preferential treatment.

As long as unions exist, we will have two classes of workers - privileged and not-so-much. And Congress will never be motivated to fix the problem, because enough people to show up en masse in Madison waving pro-union signs and fund hefty campaign contributions to Democratic legislators will still be satisfied with the mid-20th century deal they're getting at the expense of everybody else.

Posted by: Itzajob | March 2, 2011 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Could you tell us what Gabby Giffords thinks about this?

And how about 10 or 12 more anti-electric car screeds while your'e at it?

Let us all praise Beieber that this ridiculous rag will go under soon.

Posted by: tjtucker | March 2, 2011 9:52 PM | Report abuse

Semantics: the last resort of a losing argument.

Posted by: madstan | March 2, 2011 10:09 PM | Report abuse

To Itzaob

My nephew works for a company with both union and non-union employees. They all gaet the same wages and benefits. Why? Because the company has to pay non-union workers the same and give them equal benefits in order to keep their valued employees in the non-union jobs. The only difference is that the non-union employees don't have to pay union dues.

There has been a protracted propaganda campaign waged by the rich and powerful to convince workers that they do not deserve a living wage, pensions and benefits.

It has been very successful. Now private sector workers who are ubderpaid and have had their rights, pensions and benefits taken away, are angry at union workers that have what is only fair.

The companies can afford to pay their employees what they are worth. But they don't have to cause they have you shaking in your boots. Quit demonizing the unions and stand up for yourselves. The fat cats are getting obscenely rich from your labor. Demand your fair share.

Posted by: waybackwitch | March 2, 2011 10:33 PM | Report abuse

While I disagree with much of what Lane has to say, I will restrict myself to requesting that he stay afer work and write

"The plural of anecdote is not data."

1,000 times on the blackboard.

Posted by: lensch | March 2, 2011 11:04 PM | Report abuse

Data shows

Real wages have declined with the decline of union membership.

The rich have gotten richer in the thirty years of war on unions while workers wages and standard of living has declined.

Communities with a strong union presence have overall higher wages and better benefits for both union and non-union workers.

Countries undergoing revolutions have most of the nations wealth concentrated in a very small percentage of the rich while the workers have low wages, no unions, no benefits.

Observation - we're toast. welcome to the decline and fall of that noble expeient called the United States of America.

Posted by: waybackwitch | March 2, 2011 11:25 PM | Report abuse

Hey, itzajob, if your tale of the union v. non-union treatment is true, why didn't you have the intelligence to form a union? The truth of it is that corporations are making record profits because too many of us are afraid to stand up for ourselves. I'm not opposed to profits, but many corporations are making record profits at the expense of their workers. Why are people sitting passively and accepting an erosion in their living standards while corporate titans, and their toddies like Lane in the chattering class, take the elitist view that we are "lucky" to have a job at all.

Posted by: dcinsider1 | March 3, 2011 12:22 AM | Report abuse

It's maciavellian. Pit workers against workers.

Not long ago, I remember, just about anyone whowas willing to work hard could make a decent living. They had good pay, benefits and pensions. There was a large middle class, living well. With careful planning they could own a house, send their kids to college and have a decent retirement.

Now we're broke? The rich are richer than they could have ever imagined. The stock market goes up. Billion dollar bonuses are paid. But we're broke. Workers lose their jobs, their homes, their savings. We demonize public sector workers for making a decnt wage. Something within everyone's reach not long ago. But we're broke. We have to suffer to balance a budget while the top two percent make more money.

We are threatened that they won't make jobs if we ask them to pay their fair share. But that's an old story. We have done with less so they can have more and where are the jobs?

They have gotten rich from the sweat of our brow, from our sacrifice. But you turn on your neighbor cause she has what was available to you not long ago.

We have been taught to worship money instead of quality of life. Tax cuts and special considerations for the rich are more important than the health of your neighbor or your child's education.

Greed is not good. Business is not sancrosanct. Profit is not the holy grail. This country seems to worship money despite all the proclamations of being a christian nation. We have lost our way, our honor , our morality.

Godmoney I'll do anything for you. Bow down before the one you serve.

I'm not bowing.

Posted by: waybackwitch | March 3, 2011 1:00 AM | Report abuse

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.

Posted by: waybackwitch | March 3, 2011 1:03 AM | Report abuse

to waybackwitch: thank you for the comment! I agree whole heartedly and I'm not bowing either!

Posted by: JDYoung | March 3, 2011 3:05 AM | Report abuse

I would very much like to point out to Mr. Hale and others who allege that unions are in charge of their own pay and benefits that there are two parties at the bargaining table and they must agree for contracts to take effect. Here in Connecticut, for example, every current contract in effect for State employees was negotiated and agreed to by a Republican administration. Get off the scapegoating, please.

Posted by: hunterjond | March 3, 2011 5:50 AM | Report abuse

Giant corporations outsource work and jobs to the third world, paying a pittance for work previously performed in the US. Do the right wing folks complain about this greed that has devastated American workers? No, they blame other workers who had the good sense to unionize and protect their interests. Amazing to see non-union workers prepared to fight to the death to preserve their right to be underpaid.

Posted by: UncommonCommoner | March 3, 2011 7:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the Governor should have and should do a better job of saying what he is doing! But, I want to know where the mainstream lefty media is to condemn the hate and physical confrontation by the union thugs. And the trashing of the Capitol Building? They were beside themselves trying to find such incidents at any Tea Party meeting - AND COULDN"T - but they seem blind to the abuses by the union trash! And they accuse Fox News of not being Fair and Balanced?

Posted by: twhittlinger | March 3, 2011 8:30 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the Governor should have and should do a better job of saying what he is doing! But, I want to know where the mainstream lefty media is to condemn the hate and physical confrontation by the union thugs. And the trashing of the Capitol Building? They were beside themselves trying to find such incidents at any Tea Party meeting - AND COULDN"T - but they seem blind to the abuses by the union trash! And they accuse Fox News of not being Fair and Balanced?

Posted by: twhittlinger | March 3, 2011 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Union AND management NEGOTIATE and then they AGREE!!!

Once again union benefits were negotiated with management!!!

Saying that public employees shouldn't have something because some private employees don't have the same thing is not a good argument. I have worked in corporations where there were union and non-union. Non-union employees reaped the benefits negotiated by the union.

Because I don't have you don't have. That argument does not sway many people.

Posted by: rlj611 | March 3, 2011 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: twhittlinger
the hate and physical confrontation by the union thugs. And the trashing of the Capitol Building?

There has been NO violence and no trashing of the capitol! Try to get your facts straight before you condem people. You might want to watch something OTHER than Fox News, the people who showed a clip from a confrontation in Sacremento, CA when talking about Madison. Wisconsin doesn't have palm trees. Not even in Madison!

Governor Walker is a bully, plain and simple. He hasn't explained anything because he doesn't think he has to and the Koch brothers don't want him to.

Posted by: wisconsinite1 | March 3, 2011 10:59 AM | Report abuse

The bargainers representing the states, counties, and municipalities where there are unionized public employees sign off on the agreements. They represent to the legislatures and governments that they have struck bargains beneficial to those public entities. Now the same entities maintain that somehow they were unfairly pressured to concede benefits out of all proportion to the service provided by the said employees. Is that the gist of this brouhaha? And who are you fool citizens who are buying this argument?

If the state signed off, then the state was swearing in a contractual way that it agreed that there was a mutual benefit. The state swore that it would uphold its end of the contract. That included providing the agreed funding formula for pensions and health. That included not unilaterally altering the terms of the agreement during the period under contract. Yet we have governors, legislators, and pundits galore who aver that the fault lies with the union membership and their leaders for the "unfair" benefits accorded the public employees. This is a sickening distortion of truth and it should get no space in any paper or report. It is blatantly a false representation that seeks to demonize honest people who have chosen to carry out the work of city, county, and state governments.

It is not that shocking, we have to admit, that political figures will make simplistic presentations of complex societal situations. That has happened many times over history. What is shocking is that these false choices, false blames, false "cures" gain foothold in a society where freedom of information is said to be prized. We are already falling down on our responsibilities to maintain the brave progress of our nation. To do so under deliberately seeded misconceptions is tantamount to a crime.

Posted by: Jazzman7 | March 3, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I do not understand why the republicans are discussing this. As of now, Republicans are unable to vote because a quorum of 3/5 is needed for any changes to spending or compensation. However, a bill that does not change compensation, spending or anything fiscal only requires a majority of the quorum, which republicans have 19-14. Introduce a new bill that only targets collective bargaining, in doing so they have the attendance to pass such a bill. If democrats want to leave the state let them, they will have no way of slowing the process without anyone there. I feel that the state of Wisconsin voted Walker in to do the things that he believed necessary during these hard times and the democratic candidate lost, so if this is the result, then the democrats should do what the republicans did and get out to vote next election period and change things through the constitutional process.

Posted by: jvega1 | March 3, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Typical GOP tactic: pit worker against worker by presenting untruths. Face it, Walker is behaving like a bully.People don't like bullies. Didn't he exempt cops and firefighters (whose packages are more expensive)? If so, why?

Posted by: jckdoors | March 3, 2011 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Phase 2 of the Republican/corporatocracy plan. After shipping every job they could to overseas sweatshops, drive down wages and benefits for those jobs that can't be outsourced. Never stop making the rich richer and the poor poorer. And believe me, when the Republicans are finishing doing the Koch brothers bidding and smashing the teachers' unions, they will get around to police and firemen. We will hear all the tales of how overpaid they are and how they are all gaming the system. The Republicans never stop, they have to be stopped.

Posted by: dnahatch1 | March 3, 2011 2:39 PM | Report abuse

People are generally against Walker for the simple reason that he never ran on ending collective bargaining. If he had he would have lost. People know no matter what the problems are with the Unions, that collective bargaining is a fair way for a worker to protect his job and family. No one can deny Walker is trying to destroy public unions for political gain. Lane may not like public unions but Walker wants to stack the deck and doesn't care who gets hurt in the process.

Posted by: jpatuto11 | March 3, 2011 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Politicians typically represent special interests instead of citizens. There is an obvious conflict of interest when politicians bargain with their employees' union on pay and benefits because unions contribute to those politicians. This leaves the taxpayers unrepresented by their elected representatives, and results in financially troubled cities and states.

Posted by: allamer1 | March 3, 2011 6:38 PM | Report abuse

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