Sunday, February 13, 2011

Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill

Reaction to Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill continued today and is likely only a shadow of what we will see in the week ahead. While the bill itself contains a number of measures, it is the provisions stripping or limiting the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees that have caused the most anguish. If enacted, these provisions will be a tremendous change in the relationship between the state and public sector workers here in Wisconsin. Whatever the outcome, I believe this bill will have national implications.

Part of the furor over the bill arises from the fact that it was somewhat unexpected, Walker's comments downplaying this aspect notwithstanding. Yes, additional contributions toward pensions and health care by public employees were expected, but how many of us thought that within six weeks of taking office Governor Walker would propose legislation that essentially ends the power of public sector unions? I thought there was a possibility that Walker saw being governor as the culmination of his efforts, rather than just the start of them. This proposal shows how wrong I was.

By its nature this proposal will have a group of supporters who are already Walker fans, and a group of detractors who are already Walker foes. The numbers in the legislature point toward easy passage, but that doesn't necessarily mean the proposals will be supported by a majority of Wisconsin voters. Whether or not these proposals gain popular support and, by extension, whether or not Walker does, may rest with those who don't already have a dog in the fight.

Opponents of the bill have adopted at least three themes in attacking it: It is an assault on the middle class, it denies the history of labor relations and the gains for workers made possible by unions, and it is a power grab by the governor.

My wife and I consider ourselves middle class, and I doubt very much that either of us feels "assaulted" by the governor's proposal. It is quite possible many other middle class Wisconsinites will feel the same way. Not a good sign for opponents of the measures.

The proposals are a dramatic break with history in labor relations between the state and public workers for sure, but is that in and of itself a bad thing? Is it not possible that we need a change in the way this relationship works in order to meet the challenges of a 21st century economy?

As far as the gains made by unions throughout history to improve working conditions in this country, I don't doubt for a minute they are real. One could argue that many of these have become common features of the workplace, eliminating or greatly reducing the need for collective bargaining to secure any further changes. After all, we have yet to see a proposal from the Governor eliminating the 8 hour work day. Some of the Governor's opponents have adopted a rallying cry of "solidarity," but Milwaukee in 2011 is a far cry from Gdansk in 1980.

Finally, there is the power grab argument. This is the one that Walker has done the most to bolster with his somewhat cryptic comment about readying the Wisconsin National Guard. It is proper for chief executives to prepare for contingencies. If Walker was merely suggesting that the Guard could stand in for striking corrections officers, then his remark seems warranted. But if that is what he meant, then why didn't he say just that?

If, on the other hand, he meant something else, then I would urge him to be very careful. Calling out the National Guard on dissenting citizens is NOT commensurate with a small government philosophy. In case there was any question, public sector employees have not given up their first amendment rights (at least not outside of work hours).

If anyone tells you they are certain how this will turn out, don't believe it. It is simply too soon and this change is too big. Once, I thought Walker's handling of the structural budget deficit would define his governorship, with this proposal, however, that is clearly no longer the case.


capper said...

A few points of order:

This was not a surprise, at least not to those of us that are active in our unions.

Secondly, if you do not see how this will impact you, you haven't looked down the path far enough. As the unions go, so goes the rest of the state. If the unions lose bargaining power, and we become a right to work state, your salaries will drop about $5000 on average. Services being provided will be of lower quality and your safety will be reduced.

Things will get bogged down even more than they already are, and serious errors will occur in greater frequency and severity than they do now.

All of that is because, along with workers' rights, the unions demand a certain level of skill and education from their members, especially in the professional jobs.

Secondly, without the unions to bulldog things along, the improvements that you have credited the unions for will disappear, since there is no force to make sure they stay intact.

Oh, and your taxes will still go up. Maybe not while he's in term whether it be one year or four years, but they will go up just to pay for his idiocy.

Cindy K. said...

I'm becoming a Walker fan. I never dared to dream the man would actually act! He'd certainly not shown anything in his Milwaukee County tenure to make me think this would happen, but then, he didn't have full backup at the time.

It's an enormous goal. He must be pretty sure of the outcome, or I don't think he'd risk it. How many times have we sat back, scratched our chins, and said, "we ought to do something." This is something.

The Guard statement is interesting. I see it as full acknowledgement to expect anything.

PS - Capper, prove your claim, please. $5000 on average? Really? If the unions wage slow downs in protest then sure, things will get bogged down, but isn't that even more proof it's time for this change? Other states of gone to right to work and survived.

Anonymous said...


Very sensible post. I have just a couple comments.

1. I really don't think Gov. Walker has anything in mind with the National Guard except prisons. It's hard to imagine anyone being that foolish.

2. You suggest that unions may no longer be necessary. They have brought such great gains for workers, what more could workers want? I think this notion overlooks the a few things. It implies that all is well with workers in this country. That, in my opinion, is false. Many non-union workers are subject to all sorts of abuses - overtime without pay, unsafe conditions, etc. - and have no recourse. Second, the Governor has a very strong tendency to favor business over the individual citizen. Witness some of the provisions in his lawsuit reform bill. Although I don't think he'll be pushing for a 10 hour work day, I do think he has more bad things in mind for all workers. That is part of his notion of making Wisconsin more business friendly. Of course it's not necessary to weaken worker's rights to boost the economy, but he apparently thinks it is.

3. I don't know what you do for a living, but the typical worker is very insecure in today's environment - much more so than twenty or thirty years ago. Unions provide a bulwark against the collusion we are seeing between some government officials and some businesses. In this day and age, I don't think most workers see unions as a vehicle for big gains. They see them as protection against the erosion of their current situation. If they saw the current situation as being secure, they wouldn't join.

By the way, I am a member of a newly-formed UW-faculty union. Nobody I know was happy about forming the union, but we have been seeing a steady erosion of our compensation over the last ten years. We had no illusions of getting pay raises. We just wanted to stop the decline. As unbelievable as it may sound, most of my colleagues aren't terribly concerned with making lots of money - and we certainly don't, by any reasonable comparison. We just don't want to move backwards.

That said, most of us reluctantly accept that we need to make a bit of a sacrifice to help the current State budget situation, but the Governor didn't ask us.

capper said...


This is really old news, but Zach was the most recent one to post on it. You'll also note that most of the right to work states also have the same, if not higher level of unemployment.

Also, the right to work states might have survived, but their quality of life is for crap, or do you actually like seeing poor people living in tar shacks?

RTW states have a much higher poverty level and child poverty level than Wisconsin does - for now. In 2009 WI's overall and child poverty rate was 14.2% and 19.6%, respectively. RTW states had rates of 19.4% and 26.0%, on average. Mississippi had the highest overall rate at 28.9% as well as the highest child poverty rate at a whopping 39.8%. And you dare to call that OK? Really?

BTW, your comment about an union slow down was pretty asinine, since there won't be any unions if Walker gets his way. The problem will be when there is untrained, uncertified and uneducated people doing jobs they aren't qualified for, just because they work for less money.

And are you really OK with Walker pushing through such a radical thing as this, without ANY public input, in just days and at threat of military force? If so, say I to Kevin F. because you are now slumming with him.

Jeremy R. Shown said...


You might be right that this shouldn't be a surprise, maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention.

I grew up, and used to work, in an RTW state. I'm simply not convinced RTW=terrible conditions for people. Can't they (at least many of them)vote with their feet?

I'm open (as I suspect Cindy is) to being convinced, but I'll have to see more than just claims as to how wages and taxes will change.

Anon - I agree that worker insecurity has increased (and that wages have stagnated since the 1970's) so the real question is what to do? I don't think Walker's proposal on this matter addresses this. But the major answer from the left seems to be to turn back the clock to around 1960 with respect to labor/management relations. I'm not convinced that this is the answer.

I really think we need a totally new approach for workers to be as successful and happy as I think they should be. I don't see such an approach being proposed by either side these days, unfortunately.

capper said...

Jeremy, those were stats, not claims. That belies your claims of being open-minded.

BTW, the people in south have been moving out. As will the people in WI if this passes.

J. Strupp said...

Aren't we all (union members especially) ignoring the fact that unless certain budget constraints are implemented on certain state employees, hundreds (probably thousands) of union members will end up losing their jobs altogether?

It just seems to me that most union members would rather fight to avoid any financial sacrifice even if it means that they're indirectly knifing their fellow brothers and sisters in the process. Where's the honor and principle in that?

Personally, I would rather the Federal government backstop state budget shortfalls so neither of these options has to happen but that clearly isn't going to happen.