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.