Lessons from Wisconsin

You’ve heard that the Republican Senate in Wisconsin abruptly approved a controversial measure aimed at restricting collective bargaining for public workers.  The move took nearly everyone by surprise except those who voted. It also set off a new round of protests.

Still, there are lessons to be learned on both sides. Perhaps these are best explored by reviewing some of the questionable behaviors of the past month:

1. Fourteen senators leaving the state as a means of postponing a vote on the fate of collective bargaining. I understand why they left. They were trying to buy time, hoping to create opportunities both for amicable discussion and for negotiating more reasonable terms before taking a vote. I even sympathize; I’m just not sure it was right. Being elected to state office would imply that one is meant to conduct state business inside state borders and not jump ship — even when the majority party doesn’t seem to be playing fair.

2. The Republican senators taking a vote on the bargaining matter without giving the required 24-hour notice. Seems a tad sneaky.

3. Governor Scott Walker saying his sole reason for targeting the unions was to balance the state budget. Then, after public-sector workers readily agreed to give concessions to help ease the deficit, Walker continued pushing to slash bargaining rights, a strategy that conveyed that the deficit was never his chief concern.  The Republican agenda was. The deficit was merely a guise.

4. Walker ignoring historically large turnouts by state workers for days on end as well as polls of Wisconsin voters, which repeatedly tilted in favor of the union protestors. If you’re elected to lead the people of Wisconsin, why would you not back things up a step or two and sit down to discuss a middle- ground solution? Why would you not take the concessions offered by the workers and move forward with more fiscal responsibility and support from the entire state?

5. The blogger who, posing as billionaire David Koch, taped a phone conversation with Walker. Sure, the tape revealed some unflattering tactics on Walker’s part.  Big surprise! But why, in this age when journalism is being accused of underhanded and irresponsible tactics on a regular basis, didn’t anyone in the media question such tactics? On rare occasions, it’s been necessary for a journalist to go under cover.  This wasn’t one of them.

There was also inspiration to be drawn from the events of the past couple of weeks: For one thing, regular people proved that their voices matter.  The protesters in Wisconsin have given the nation something to think about.  They’ve raised questions, not just about the fate of unions, but about the fate of the middle class and the growing gap in this country between the very rich and the very poor.  They’ve helped us to understand that protests can be waged in a civil manner. (And, I hope they will continue to be). I also hope that citizens speak with another force in the near future — their votes.



  1. Bruce Reynolds says:

    I can see some of your points, but 3 and 4 need to be addressed. In regards to item 3, you feel that since Walker’s said his “sole reason for targeting the unions was to balance the state budget”, that Walker was wrong to slash collective bargaining rights once the union approved the benefits concessions. What I think you are missing is that the unions were offering nothing but a short-term fix to a long-term problem. With collective bargaining of benefits in place, there’s no concession the union could make this year that they couldn’t get right back next year. So Walker would balance the budget this year, then be right back in the red next year. What benefit would that have been to the state of Wisconsin?

    As to point 4, you say “Walker ignoring historically large turnouts by state workers for days on end as well as polls of Wisconsin voters, which repeatedly tilted in favor of the union protestors.” According to the Department of Labor, Union people represent about 15% of Wisconsin’s 2.5 million workers, and affected public sector union members make up about 30% of that 15%, or about 53,500 workers. That’s 53,500 people out of a state population of 5,650,000 people, or less than 1% of the population. So while there were “historically large turnouts by state workers for days on end”, and lots of folks who were not state workers and members of unions from others states and other unions, the bottom line is whether or not the Governor should put the interests of less than 1% of the state’s population over that of the other 99%+ who aren’t affected public sector union members? As to polls, I would think as a reporter you would know that outcomes of polls are hugely influenced by what questions are asked. If the polls had asked “Should the public sector unions be allowed to negotiate benefits packages that are 300% or more higher than private sector pakages?”, the poll results would be far different than if you ask “Should the Governor strip away the rights of Wisconsin workers?” Lastly, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress recently passed health care refrom despite over half the population being against it. Using your argument of only moving forward with the support of the entire state, shouldn’t the Democrats have stopped their efforts when 50%+ of the population were against them? If you feel less than 1% of the Wisconsin population should influence the other 99%, surely 50% opposition should have ground the debate to an immediate stop… right?

    One point that was missing from your post is that everything in business relys on a balance being maintained. Companies must balance their profits against the need to attract and maintain the best workers. Unions must balance the needs of their members against the profitability of the company they work for. The problem with public sector unions is there is no profitability to balance against the demands of the union and its members. If they demand more than the employer (the government) can afford, the government’s only options are to deny the unions or increase taxes. This isn’t a major problem when you have someone running the government who’s willing to refuse the union’s demands, but it’s a major problem when you have a situation like the one that was in Wisconsin and other states where union contributions to politicians influence them to make decisions against the best interests of the taxpayers. One can imagine how long any business would last if the owner threw profit to the wind to placate the employees, but when it comes to government, the government can’t go bankrupt and close its doors as they can always increase taxes, which takes care of the public sector unions but creates a business environment that for Wisconsin ranks it the 10th worst in the country, which drives away private sector employers and jobs.