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.
| March 2, 2011; 4:30 PM ET
Categories: Lane | Tags: Charles Lane
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