woody_zimmerman_118_2007In a cartoon whose origin is long-forgotten a commencement speaker was pictured addressing graduates with a glint in his eye, saying, “I’ve got mine. Get yours while there’s still some left…”

At this writing, something like this is going on in several states – Wisconsin being the noisiest and most visible right now. Indeed, the cartoon-scenario is entirely apt for public education, as thousands of unionized public-sector workers (including public school teachers) are calling in sick, stopping work, and demonstrating noisily against Governor Scott Walker’s proposals to correct Wisconsin’s fiscal problems. The state workers are collectively giving an “amen” (or maybe a “heil”) to that cartoon commencement speaker, while adding their own twist: “I want mine. The rest of you can pay for it, and don’t give me any @#$% about not being able to afford it…”

In a way, you have to admire their chutzpah. It’s something like a mistress who’s been suddenly put on a budget, after years of profligate spending. She doesn’t want to hear about hard times, low cash-flow, and fiscal realities. She wants what she wants, and no hard-luck stories are accepted or understood. The hapless lothario knows he will have no joy unless he forks over the ante. She appears to hold all the cards – except that you can’t get blood out of a turnip. Something has to give.

Wisconsin is not a unique case. Its elected officials have made a terrible mistake – three mistakes, really, although they are interrelated. First, legislators and governors allowed state employees to be unionized. Second, they failed to comprehend the potential uncontrollability of union collective-bargaining. And third, they allowed those unions to negotiate benefit packages that cannot be sustained, financially. Some officials knew that a day of reckoning would come, but the public wasn’t aware, so it was convenient (and politically smart) to kick the can down the road. Someday, someone would have to deal with the situation.

“Someday” has finally arrived. The one-two punch of diminished tax revenues from a weak economy, plus an aroused public – fully aware of the danger – has swept out the old gang of pusillanimous politicians and brought in a new cadre of young warriors determined to end the profligacy and accomplish what the people have elected them to do.

Governor Walker – hardly known outside the state, previously – is the visible and highly articulate leader of a Wisconsin government which seems determined to bring the state back into fiscal responsibility. His speech at a press conference on Friday, February 18, was most impressive. If he is not vaulted into national prominence as a new leader of the GOP, then I will admit to understanding nothing about national politics. If there is an answer to President Obama’s speechifying and everyman charm-on-demand, Scott Walker may be it. But I digress.

The governor has crossed swords with unionized state workers on two issues. One is a request that employees begin making modest contributions to their retirement accounts and health-care premiums. Until now, both of these have been paid entirely by the state. The governor wants this change to eliminate a projected $137 million budget shortfall. Experts say that even after the change, workers will still pay far less than private-sector workers, both in the state and across the country, for these benefits. Some workers have said they find the request reasonable, but a noisy crowd wants their full contract honored.

The second demand from the governor is an end to collective bargaining rights for unionized state employees. For readers confused by the term “collective bargaining,” I give Webster’s definition:

Collective bargaining = negotiation between an employer and a labor union, usually on wages, hours, and working conditions.

This means that the employer – in this case, the state – does not deal with individual employees on these matters, but with the labor union to which employees belong. The union negotiates collectively on behalf of employees, and the employer is bound by federal labor law to respect that representation. When labor unions started organizing government workers in the 1970s, there were various predictions of future difficulties. But the movement rolled onward because Democrats saw an advantage in cultivating a new crop of union members who could be depended on to vote their way.

But while government employee union-membership was growing, private-sector union-membership was shrinking. In 2010, 11.9% of all wage and salary workers in the American labor force were members of a union – down from 12.3% in 2009 and 20.1% in 1983, when such data were first compiled. In the 1940s, union membership was much higher than the 1983 figure. Today, the majority of union members are government employees. As Nicholas Riccardi (Los Angeles Times) has pointed out, their pay and benefits have not shrunk during the recession, as for private-sector workers. This tends to create resentment among the public – especially when governmental budgetary shortfalls produce calls for higher taxes at the very time when many families are strapped, financially.

In Wisconsin, government employees have convened raucous demonstrations that have attracted the national media. TV reports have featured footage of sign-waving teachers and other state employees. Some of labor’s big guns, including AFL/CIO president Richard Trumka, have shown up at Wisconsin’s union rallies to support union power via the retention of collective bargaining rights.

President Obama has also added his two cents worth, stating that Governor Walker’s proposals on collective bargaining “look more like an assault on unions.” The president is a strong supporter of unions, as their support was crucial to his election in 2008. Thus, his intervention was not entirely surprising, although somewhat unusual. But Governor Walker’s response was memorable:

We’re focused on balancing our budget; it would be wise for the president and others in Washington to focus on balancing their budget, which they’re a long way from doing.”

The comic-relief in Wisconsin’s week of tension has been the behavior of fourteen Democratic senators, who literally fled the state in order to stop a vote on a bill to take the right of collective bargaining away from unionized government workers. The bill could not be voted on because of the Democrats’ absence from the senate. It was later reported that the senators had traveled to Illinois by bus. Big media – ever sympathetic to Democrat-interests – have praised this clever move, but there are indications that the voters are not amused. The governor summed it up in this devastating statement, on February 19:

People talk about Democracy. You can’t participate in Democracy if you’re not in the arena. The arena is not in Rockford Illinois, the arena is in Madison, Wisconsin, and it’s time for those senators to come home. Now if they want to debate this, if they want to discuss this, if they want to argue the merits of their position – come offer amendments, come offer discussion. But hiding out in another state is not a way for Democracy to operate. A handful of people among a minority, don’t get the right to drive the majority here. They should have every right to be heard, and they would be afforded that opportunity if they showed up to work.”

When those senators finally return – which they must do eventually – the bill they oppose will almost certainly pass. Governor Walker insists that it’s “imperative” that the collective-bargaining removal be enacted first. Mr. Walker believes the people elected him to rein in the cost of state government and put its fiscal house in order. He will find out at the next election if the people really meant that.

In the meantime, Wisconsin is in process of demonstrating whether democracy can work when Democrats aren’t in the majority. One pundit called it a political laboratory experiment. I don’t think the Fourteen Truants or the union yellers realized they were performing an experiment, but they are.

My money is on the people of Wisconsin. I don’t believe they will let union hooliganism and truant politicians bring their elected government to a stop. But we’re going to find out.