Moderately Enraged

If I had a motto, it would probably be "Moderation in all things... including moderation." Oh, sure, I'll occasionally do something bizarre--last night's roller-skating trip comes to mind--but in general, I'm philosophically most comfortable sitting in the middle of things, trying to look to either side to find the worthwhile elements in both directions. I'm pretty liberal, politically speaking, but I'm not one to ride the "Republicans are EEEE-vil!" train; I see most of my opponents on the political front as folks who proceed from fundamentally different assumptions, along with some who simply don't know what they're talking about, plus a handful of miscellaneous fools, crooks, and liars.

The first group are no different than I am, so I have to respect their stance even as I disagree with them; if we can come to a reasonable discussion, we might shift some viewpoints or find some common ground. The second group is harder to work with, because they often believe they DO know what they're talking about, but calling someone an ignoramus is unlikely to persuade him to come around; moreover, since there are areas where I operate in ignorance (hello, high finance!), it's hardly fair for me to jump down the throat of someone who's honestly trying his best to understand something when he doesn't have the experience or expertise to do it. Still, with patience, this group can be successfully engaged.

But then there are the fools, crooks, and liars, who are frustrating as hell because a) they can't really be engaged, and b) they can do so much damage when they get members of the first and second groups on their side.

And in Wisconsin, I think that's exactly what's happening.

Let's start with a fact: I am not and never have been a union member. When I worked in North Carolina public schools in the early 90s, I had the opportunity to join the NC Association of Educators and opted not to. I have no particular aversion to unions, to whom I must give thanks for such things as weekends (when I get them) and child-labor laws, but I've never been a big joiner of anything--not fraternities, professional organizations, Facebook groups, or much else. I haven't even belonged to a political party for the last sixteen years. Maybe it's a fear of commitment. But I've also heard some horror stories about union corruption, and I could not in good conscience be a part of a group that was morally compromised in such a way. In sum, then, I have no experience as a union member, have never lived in a state where unions were particularly plentiful or powerful, and would feel deeply uncomfortable in a job where union membership was forced upon me.

Nonetheless, I am completely sympathetic to the union members in Wisconsin right now.

It starts with the basic idea that people ought to be able to petition the government about their grievances, whether as individuals or in groups. Even state employees, I think, should have this right. The government doesn't have to agree to the petitioners' terms, of course--that's just how bargaining works--but I do believe the government must recognize the petitioners' right to complain. (You may sense a certain degree of love for the First Amendment here.)

I also believe that in this instance, the governor and the 19 members of the Wisconsin Legislature have acted in bad faith with the people. There is certainly going to be a budget shortfall in Wisconsin (despite mistaken reports from the usually-reliable Rachel Maddow and others that there will be a surplus), and it's reasonable for Governor Scott Walker and his GOP allies to take steps to fix that problem. Of course, the first thing Scott and his cohorts did upon taking office was to pass a tax cut--perhaps a nice gesture to his supporters, but not useful when you're trying to balance the budget, especially as these cuts (when they take effect in the the 2011-13 fiscal period) will add $100 million to the deficit. Having accomplished that goal, however, Walker then pushed to balance the budget by cutting benefits to state employees.

There's no reason why state employees' benefits should be sacrosanct during tough financial times; when austerity is called for, people in the public sector and private alike have to tighten their belts. But perhaps it would have been more reasonable to forgo the hundreds of millions in tax cuts rather than cut the benefits for teachers, trash collectors, road workers, and other public works employees--except, interestingly enough, the two public-works groups that supported the GOP in the last election, firefighters and police.

That rather selective process of determining whose oxen would be gored isn't the most galling bit of the proposed bill, though; no, that would be Walker's insistence that the unions for those same public employees--all the ones who aren't firemen or cops, that is--give up their right to bargain collectively. In other words, these workers would lose not only their benefits (in the short term), but their ability to negotiate over future benefits (in the long term).

As John Scalzi puts it:

The bill may or may not bring the state budget back in line, but let's not pretend that breaking the backs of the unions is not also what this bill is about. And it's a fine test case for it, because if you can crack the unions in Wisconsin, which has a strong labor and union history, then chances are pretty good you can crack them elsewhere. It's also a fine test case for the proposition of advancing a social and philosophical agenda under the cover of budget constraints - i.e., "we just can't afford to support [insert thing Republicans don't like] anymore, we have to tighten our belts." The economy is the stalking horse for ideological ball-cutting, and what we're seeing here is whether Republicans can get anyone to believe that this is not in fact what they hope to do here.

That's where matters sat when things went crazy last week, with protesters mobbing the capital, teachers and other workers calling in sick en masse to head to Madison, Democratic legislators fleeing the legislature in order to prevent the GOP majority from having the quorum necessary to pass the bill, and Walker sending out the state police to capture the Democrats. It's great political theater, but in the midst of it, one clear and important fact seems to have been largely obscured:

The unions are willing to accept the cuts:

Earlier Friday, Marty Beil, head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said his members would agree to pay more of their pension contributions and health insurance benefits as Walker is demanding. But Beil said his union would never agree to give up decades-old bargaining rights.

Beil's union is part of AFSCME, the largest state and local employee union in Wisconsin, which represents 68,000 workers for the state, Milwaukee, Milwaukee County and other municipalities. An AFSCME spokesman said Beil was speaking for all the group's union locals in the state.

"We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state's budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union . . .  we will not - I repeat we will not - be denied our rights to collectively bargain," Beil said in a statement.

Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union, said her group also would make the financial concessions to keep its bargaining rights.

"This is not about money," Bell said in a phone conference. "We understand the need to sacrifice."

Walker flatly rejected the offer.

In short, this is conflict has nothing to do with Walker's campaign platform of fiscal responsibility; he could have discharged his responsibilities in that area by leaving taxes as they were. It's not even about trying to balance the budget on the backs of state employees. It's about breaking the unions. Period. Walker won't allow his own proposed benefit cuts to balance the budget unless he can destroy the unions' ability to negotiate in the process. And if a union can't negotiate, it effectively has no use; the only thing it's good for is negotiating. In order to fix a problem that his own policies have exacerbated, Scott Walker wants to abridge the right to petition the government. And that, to me, is just plain wrong.

So here I am, Mister Moderation, looking at events with which I have no first-hand experience in a state I've never visited, and feeling more than anything else the desire to fly to Madison, pick up a placard, and join in a rousing chorus of "Which Side Are You On?"

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on February 20, 2011 10:04 AM.

Sorry About That, Chief was the previous entry in this blog.

Enema of the State is the next entry in this blog.

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