Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Wisconsin Idea in Reverse

President Charles Van Hise of the University of Wisconsin proposed the Wisconsin Idea in 1904. The public university (Wisconsin) existed for the benefit of the people of the state. The University, working with the legislature, would advance reform legislation – progressive legislation in what became known as the Progressive Era.

The great Governor and United States Senator, Robert M. LaFollette, Sr., advanced the progressive causes of labor and women’s rights. The states became the laboratories of democracy. A significant share of FDR’s New Deal built upon the lessons learnt in Wisconsin.

The American Federation of State, County, and Local Employees (AFSCME) was chartered by the AFL-CIO in 1936 in Madison, Wisconsin. The State in 1959 was the first to grant collective bargaining rights to public sector unions. The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, was centered on the Madison campus.

The history of progressivism continued. Wisconsin was a deep blue state.

But then came the election of November 2010. Wisconsin, like much of the upper Midwest, turned a bright red as Republicans swept the governorship and legislature. A conservative Republican defeated an 18 incumbent, Russ Feingold, for the Senate seat.

Elections have consequences. Just as President Obama’s 2008 progressive tide allowed the Democrats at the national level to roll over a defanged national GOP, the new Republican majority in Wisconsin have their cause to advance as Obama’s tide swept out.

Governor Scott Walker made no secret of his goals. He was going to essentially break the public employee unions. He didn’t use those words, but that was the message.

These unions face a conundrum nationally. How much, if any, do they give back, especially in pensions and health benefits as these costs drain state and local treasuries? The public through is not infinitely deep. A shrinking private sector cannot sustain a swelling public sector. The public, especially taxpayers, understands this reality.

Illinois may be resorting to tax increases to fill the budget gap, but California and Massachusetts proved that doesn’t work. Connecticut’s new governor is looking to raise taxes, but Connecticut never fully recovered from Governor Lowell Weicker’s imposition of an income tax.

Governor Walker asked the public employees to contribute 12.6% of their health premiums (up from 6%) and 6% towards their pensions, up from zero.

The Wisconsin unions are willing to agree to these terms to help reduce a pending $3.6 billion state budget deficit.

However, they are drawing the line at the remainder of the package, which in one swoop will repeal much of their rights in Wisconsin, and serve as an incentive for similar legislation in other states.

The Governor’s proposals exempt police and fire unions, but include all the other public workers.

Collective bargaining goes to the heart of union rights. If they can’t bargain over these rights, then they cannot legally strike over them.

First, the collective bargaining rights of the unions will no longer include health or pension benefits.

Second, while they can continue to collectively bargain on wages, any wage increases above that of the consumer price index would have to be approved by public referendum.

Third, the unions will have to stand for annual certification elections.

Fourth, the unions will now have to collect their members’ dues directly from the members. No longer will the state or local governments collect the dues through payroll deductions.

At least Governor Walker did not propose a right to work state.

The unions cannot stop the proposals from enactment, short of the 14 Democratic state Senators fleeing to Illinois, depriving the Senate of a quorum.

The Republicans are not in a mood to compromise for they must strike while the iron is hot.

Democracy is a two-way street. Sometimes you make major gains, and sometimes you lose big time.

So much for the legislators’ belief in representative Democracy!

If the unions lose in Wisconsin, the birthplace of much of their rights, they will ultimately lose in almost every state. And with their loss comes the loss of power for the national labor movement and the Democratic Party.

Private sector unions have shrank to 6.9 % of the private workforce, and are now outnumbered by the growing ranks of public sector employees with a 36.2% unionization rate with 7.6 million public sector union members. The traditional industrial, trade and crafts unions are disappearing, partially with the export of jobs.

Teachers have called sick-ins to demonstrate, sometimes bringing their students with them. So much for their plea “It’s for the children.” Most teachers continue to teach outside Madison.

Demonstrations reached between 55-70,000 people Saturday, including children, college students, scallywags and carpetbaggers. That’s not a lot historically for Madison, and certainly not for a state of 5.7 million.

Some teachers are allegedly using phony doctors’ excuses. So much for civics and the rule of law! President Reagan would have fired these teachers.

Demonstrators are bussed in from neighboring states. Solidarity forever!

President Obama is supporting the unions for they own him. 2008 may have been the Progressives Last Hurrah for an extended period.

The demonstrations have been peaceful to date, but the Governor has been called a bully, scrooge, Mubarak, and Hitler. So much for the new civility in politics!

Sooner or later the state Senators will return home. The die is cast in Madison.

(By way of disclosure, my wife is a classified employee with the Tustin Unified School District, and served until recently as treasurer of the local chapter of the California School Employees Association, the state union for classified employees.)

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