Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin?

There  is much going on in the world.  There has been regime change in Tunisia and apparently one, maybe, in Egypt.  People have taken to the streets and demanding better lives, equality, and democracy.  The unrest has spread to Bahrain, Libya, Iran, and even Wisconsin.  Yes, Wisconsin.  

People have taken to the streets in Madison the capital of the Dairy State.  They are demanding justice and calling for regime change.  Who are these people?  Why do they want regime change?  What the heck is going on?

The people in the streets are teachers and other state workers.  They are fighting the Republican governor and Republican led state legislature who want to balance the state budget by changing the collective bargaining rules or in this case actually eliminate most of the collective bargaining rights of state workers.  By essentially busting or weakening the unions, the state would lower the overall compensation of state employees, save money, and balance the budget.

Governor Scott Walker has become to some the Moammar Khadafi of Wisconsin and to others, well, the Sarah Palin of Wisconsin.   The Democratic members of the legislature have left the state and taken refuge in IL and MN so that there will not be enough members to actually vote on the governor's proposal.  Doctors have given teachers notes to justify their "sick" leave so they are free to protest in Madison.  For the past few days thousands have shown up to protest the governor’s actions.  There were close to 70,000 protesters on Saturday, February 19th.

70,000 is a lot of people.  It is a meaningful number.  Does that mean all the people are behind the teachers and other state workers in Wisconsin?  I am not so sure.  I am not so sure there is a strong base of support for unions in this country anymore.  In the past year or so, we have transitioned from to have the majority of union members in the US working for local, state, and the federal government.  This is a first.  For most of the history of organized labor, government employees were a minority among union members.  Union members were factory workers and truck drivers.  With the movement of large swaths of our manufacturing to Asia or to right to work states in the south, union membership in these sectors have shrunk dramatically.  Remaining unions in these sectors have less and less power.

Why less power?

Unions get their power from being able to withhold their labor and disrupt commerce.  Steel workers, UAW members, and Teamsters were once able to do this with great effectiveness and led to a broad based prosperous middle class in the US during the 1950’s through the 1970’s.  But, with globalization and the right to work sun belt states, corporations have moved their manufacturing and warehousing to non-union venues.  If existing unions are too demanding, companies will simply up and move their operations and essentially bust the union.  Union membership and power have waned to the point we are where we are today.

Furthermore, most non-government US workers have seen the elimination or severe limitation of their pensions.  They have also seen the erosion of their other benefits such as health care coverage.  Not only has coverage changed but there has been an increase in how much employees must contribute towards to support their benefits.   By comparison, government workers have kept their pensions and experienced less erosion of their health benefits.

In Wisconsin, we have seen a lot of snippets of teachers and others determined to save their collective bargaining rights.  The rhetoric is a throwback to the heyday of organized labor.  Their words are passionate and strong.  I actually have empathy for the teachers.  They chose this profession and took jobs essentially buying into the unwritten contract that they would work 25-30 years retire with full pensions and health care.  They would never get rich but they would certainly be comfortable, working in a generally fulfilling profession, and getting two and a half months off.
Now imagine you are ten, fifteen, or twenty years into this career and the state is about to do to you what has happened to most of us in the private sector.  Anyone would be mad as hell and quite vocal about protesting what can only be perceived as a rape.  

My question is what kind of support they will get from the rest of the taxpayers.  Government workers in my mind have been the final frontier in pension reform/elimination and benefit erosion.  The recent recession resulted in a reduction of revenues to the states and we have all heard of the astronomical deficits in California and Illinois to mention just two.  This has put the spotlight on government workers.  Their jobs, their wages, their pensions, and benefit packages are all vulnerable as states try to cope with balancing budgets.

I have great empathy for what many of these workers will be experiencing.  I have somewhat less sympathy because, sadly, it is simply their turn in the barrel.

The American Dream?  Does it now exist only in the history books?


  1. I agree with you on all your points. "it is simply their turn in the barrel" is so very true, but depending on the sector, no one thought it would be their turn. I have empathy too for what the people in Wisconsin are experiencing. But I learned that nothing last forever.

    Here in America, unions were a good thing at one time. Unions gave the quality of life back to the people, yet over time unions became more powerful, but with that was greed. Unions became organized gangsters. Isn't that the American way?

    The American Dream did exist at one time when we as a nation were not so populated. Population of people is just one angle in the study of what has been going on in our own nation as well as around the world. There are too many people to keep one's dream alive and prosperous whether it be the american dream or the dream of people else where. Sad isn't it?

    There are many different topics I see from your article which are too many to mention. I'd have a blog of my own lol. I enjoy your writings very much. Thank you.

  2. Mark,

    I always enjoy your writing and on this particular issue, was equally empathetic, but became more sympathetic as an interesting perspective was passed along to me over the weekend. Following is a facebook posting that I verified and reposted this past weekend.

    Bob Stoltz

    "Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows:

    South Carolina -50th/ North Carolina -49th/ Georgia -48th/ Texas -47th/ Virginia -44th
    ...If you are wondering, Wisconsin is currently ranked #2"

    I think it is reasonable to postulate that the best teachers will be drawn to locales that offer the best opportunity for the future and stability over time. Perhaps eventually all states will line up to put teachers up for their "turn in the barrel". I believe that the states that do so first will suffer the most in terms the quality of the education offered to their children.

  3. Bob:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and very insightful posting.

    My first reaction is duh... I guess you get what you pay for.

    The states you mentioned do not support public education very much. People of means send their children to private academies and then do not support any tax increases to support public schools.

    The other thing that bothers me and will probably be a subject of another blog piece is the steady undermining of the middle class which was such a strength in this country. Are we on our way to becoming a have and have not country like most of the rest of the world?

    All the best,

  4. Here is an article that is pro-union arguing that "screwing unions screws the entire middle class."


    Dang if nothing is ever as black & white as we try to make it out to be...