Protestors in Madison, Wisconsin. AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by aperture_lag.

Wisconsin's fight over unions' right to exist

I'm a Wisconsin native, and my circles there include a lot of political diversity--and quite a few schoolteachers. So my Facebook wall has been lively ever since the state budget protests began last week. I've been particularly agitated, however, since I woke up yesterday to the sound of a radio reporter observing that Wisconsinites want Gov. Scott Walker and the public-employee unions to reach a compromise.

Reach a compromise? The unions have been all but screaming that they'd love to reach a compromise, but the governor's not budging. Some facts about the situation in Wisconsin:

  • While it's true that state workers pay a lower share of their health premiums than most private-sector employees, it's also true that they've made wage sacrifices already in the form of, among other things, furlough days.
  • The governor claims his budget bill eliminates only the state workers' right to collectively bargain for benefits, not the right to bargain for base pay. But the bill also prevents their wages from rising faster than inflation--that is, from rising at all in terms of real value. (Allowing workers to bargain while making it impossible for them to get anywhere is like allowing citizens to vote when there's only one candidate.)
  • It's hard to take Gov. Walker's tough budget talk seriously when just weeks ago he pushed tax cuts through that, while not affecting the current fiscal year, will exacerbate shortfalls in the next two years. Assuming Walker keeps his campaign promises--and he's shown no sign of backing off--there are more tax cuts to come.
  • If Walker succeeds in gutting collective bargaining, the city of Madison could lose $7 million in federal transit money--one-sixth of its transit budget. Low-income residents would bear the brunt of the resulting service cuts.

Most importantly, the unions have made it clear that they're willing to take the proposed hit to their members' benefits. What they're not willing to do is give up the right to negotiate in the future--the right to be a functioning union. Walker, however, isn't interested in compromise.

That's because the fight Walker picked with state workers isn't about balancing the budget, and it isn't about making public employees pay a bigger chunk of their benefits. It's about destroying unions.

It's hard to defend everything unions say and do, not least because they spend a fair amount of time arguing amongst themselves. But it's one thing to disagree with how the right to collectively bargain is exercised. It's quite another to attack that right.

Unions built the American middle class, which could use some rebuilding. Organized labor is the last institutional line of defense against corporate interests in politics. Labor rights are recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to say nothing of numerous church bodies. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference, for one, has been strongly supportive of state workers' position. (No word as to whether brothers Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald--who lead the senate and assembly Republicans, respectively--will be denied communion for promoting an effort so flatly opposed to church teaching.)

As for Wisconsin's Democratic state senators, they're hiding out in Illinois to avoid a quorum call--but the Republicans have some tricks of their own in mind. And farther away, other governors are looking to follow Walker's lead.

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Comments

I can see why you quit several intellectual pursuits

You write as if there was something righteous about public employee unions. No one has the right to a government job. No government has any divine obligation to negotiate with a union.

If a government does not want to negotiate with a union, it is free to not to. Government employees have no right to increase their own wealth on the backs of people who have no option as to whether or not to purchase the product of that public union's labor.

In private industry, we have other optionsas to where we spend our money. With government, we have one option.

If a person does not want to work unless he or she is in a union, fine - find a place that will hire union members.

Every single concern that unions had when they changed the face of the workplace a century ago, is now a government statute. Safety issues, wages, hours - all of it. Unions are unnecessary for any purpose with the exception of electing Democrat Party hacks who will respond by giving the public unions whatever they ask for.

It's disappointing to see a person writing in a Christian journal making the case for oppressive, thick, heavy bureaucratic, well-paid ,government employees. For all the benign face that is put on our present bureaucracies, they are no less suffocating of the human spirit and human freedom than the bureaucracies of totalitarian systems.

The difference is that sometimes our bureaucrats sometimes smile.

Lew Davies
www.cultureandfreedom.com

Wisconsin Governor and Unions

I agree with you Mr. Thorngate and applaud you for taking the risk to share it. I too believe this is much more about destroying unions than fixing a budget. It is happening throughout each state that was taken over by the Republicans in the past election. What the elected officials seem to have forgotten is that they represent all constituents of their state and not just their own party. The extremism of so many newly elected officials can only be remedied in the next two elections. If corporate America was being treated like the middle and lower class with like cut backs it would be different, but to see tax cuts for the rich and pay losses for their workers smacks in the face of Christ's admonition to share ones wealth with the less fortunate. Our Matthew text in Chapter 6 of Feb. 27 regarding loving mammon (wealth and possessions) over loving God is a good example to follow.

Governor Walker and the Unions

Just an additional point. Yes, Governor Walker was elected by the people of Wisconsin to do what he is doing. But what he is doing is morally reprehensible, and those who did not vote for him are not required to consent to or aid in the achievement of his goal.

Labor historian Carl

Some additional points to

Some additional points to consider:

* This is critical - Federal workers, under Obama, DO NOT have the right to bargain collectively for either benefits or wages? If this bill destroys the unions in WI, then where is the outrage at the National level?

* Obama froze wages on Federal civilian workers without negotiations or collective bargaining… where was the outrage?

* Public sector employees have civil service protections that far exceed the private sector. This bill does not remove those protections.

* Private sector workers have taken pay hits at the same time that their benefits were cut as well.

* I don't see the relevance of your Koch brothers point? However, if it is relevant, these should be considered

• The AFL-CIO, whose president Richard Trumka is orchestrating much of the protests in Madison this week, donated $1.2 million to Democrats in 2008 and $900,000 in 2010.

• The American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees donated $2.6 million to the Democrats in 2008 and another $2.6 million in 2010.

• The National Education Association donated $2.3 million to Democrats in 2008 and $2.2 million in 2010.

You said, "Organized labor is

You said, "Organized labor is the last institutional line of defense against corporate interests in politics."

These are state workers employed by the government, not some for-profit corporation. They're up to their necks in politics. The non-public, mostly non-union public pays the salaries of these government employees, they pay for their benefits and pensions. They deserve the right to protest that they are paying too much, and that's what the November election was all about. The will of the people is being ignored by the Democrats who fled the state - what cowards!

>These are state workers

>These are state workers employed by the government, not some for-profit corporation. They're up to their necks in politics.

Yes, the unions are up to their necks in politics. And they're the only ones with that kind of clout who are exercising their political influence on behalf of workers' interests. The other big players are on the side of corporate interests. (The most damning thing about the Koch impersonator's prank call to Walker is how easy it was for him to get the governor on the line.) This, not the question of who the union members work for, was my point in calling them the last institutional line of defense against corporate interests in politics.

>They deserve the right to protest that they are paying too much, and that's what the November election was all about. The will of the people is being ignored by the Democrats who fled the state

The people support reducing spending on benefits and pensions, which the unions have agreed to. A majority of the people oppose gutting collective bargaining, which the unions and the Democrats are resisting. How is this ignoring the will of the people?

The power to destroy...

You posted an opinion piece. You certainly have a right to your opinion and a right to share it. In my opinion unions have definitely grown into something they were never supposed to be. I have had numerous family members teaching in public schools, including my spouse. All of them think poorly of their own unions. All of them feel that the the unions take too much and deliver the wrong message. On another hyper scale, look at professional athletes' unions. Many of those people have _minimum_ annual paychecks that are 10 times the average household income in America. And they need unions, too? Abuses by club owners should be reigned in (I think it would be handled more effectively through adjustments in antitrust laws, but that's a whole different topic), but no one making as much as ten households (or many, many more) needs a union.

Even with the downsides of unions, though, I am the first to agree that they should be not only authorized but protected so that they can serve their legitimate purposes. I believe that the proposed Wisconsin legislation will let them do that. When public employee unions have unlimited leverage, the only way for the government to respond is through higher taxes. That is where the real threat of destruction enters the picture.

You may recall from your grade school social studies class that shortly after the U.S. Constitution was adopted, a state attempted to impose taxes on the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state tax and made a prescient observation that saved the nation and should be remembered today--the power to tax is the power to destroy. Whether that power is wielded directly against the federal government by a state, or against the public by a union clamoring for funds from tax coffers, it is a destructive force that must be contained.

Wisconsin is not trying to destroy unions. It is attempting to evade its own annihilation at the hands of uncontrolable unions.

At the end of the discussion, though, we are still living in another Christian century. What is our Christian message today? Long before the U.S. existed much of the educational process that we know grew from roots in the church. The shift to broaden educational opportunities through public education has usually been openly supported by the church. Over time, though, public education has largely pushed the church completely out of the process. I do not believe that anyone can accurately suggest that the quality of public education has gone anywhere but down in recent decades. The correlation between the two is something that can be argued, but I don't believe it is merely a coincidence.

Rather than arguing over destruction of unions or governments, though, I wonder what it would take to address the real issue: how do we develop the environment and culture in schools that we want? One where teachers can afford to be teachers and students are not only willing but desiring to learn? I do not believe that unions have advanced these goals effectively. Nor have public boards of education. People need to do it. You and me, together as a Christian community. With or without unions. With or without higher taxes. For example, my church actively supports schools in our community. We support them with food programs, coat programs, reading programs, and other things. The students know that they are cared for. The teachers know that they are cared for, too. The environment and the culture continues to improve. All of it has happened without a single union negotiation and without a single dime of tax.

Rather than implying that someone else's congregation should deny communion to someone else over political positions, I challenge you to get up and do something real to serve, too. I will choose blessings and service over "op-ed" columns and exclusion every time. In a Christian century, Christians serve.

Unions

To take such a complicated topic and present only one side of a very complex issue seems a bit disingenuous. I acknowledge the need for unions but point out that the unions as we know them now are as large a problem as the corporate world you vilify. To compare the unions of today with the unions that created the American middle class is naive at best. It is a sad state of affairs. Their unwillingness to really bargain with a state that is in dire straits financially has led to this predicament. To now claim they are willing to take the financial hit seems a bit like too little too late.
Walker was elected by a majority of Wisconsin citizens, including myself, to do exactly what he is trying to do: bring some financial security into an extremely difficult situation. I do not agree with all of his tactics; I cannot remember the last time I agreed with a politician 100%. However, I agree with his premise that we must deal with the economic reality we live in today, something the previous regime was unwilling or incapable of doing.
As far as the Democratic senators, they remind me more of 6 year olds on a playground who take their ball and go home because they are losing than of grownups representing a portion of the state of Wisconsin. Their actions are inexcusable. This is worse than dirty politics. The Republican response, to threaten to bring up bills for passage that are controversial, seems to be the only response that may bring an end to this situation. It smacks of dirty politics, and probably is dirty politics. The question one needs to ask in this situation is who pushed whom into making this decision. It seems to me that the Democrats are getting what they deserve for running and hiding instead of staying and debating a bill as a minority party.

>To take such a complicated

>To take such a complicated topic and present only one side of a very complex issue seems a bit disingenuous.

It may be biased; it’s an opinion piece. It’s not disingenous: I really do believe that basic labor rights--again, separate from any analysis of what a given union DOES at a given time--are absolute, a human right. Most of the world’s countries are on record agreeing with me on this. And I really do believe that Walker is presenting an ideological program of shrinking government and threatening labor rights under the mantle of a practical program of balancing the budget.

>Their unwillingness to really bargain with a state that is in dire straits financially has led to this predicament. To now claim they are willing to take the financial hit seems a bit like too little too late.

What about the sacrifices they’ve already made, the furlough days and the end to merit awards under Gov. Doyle?

>Walker was elected by a majority of Wisconsin citizens, including myself, to do exactly what he is trying to do: bring some financial security into an extremely difficult situation.

This is half right: yes, going after the unions is in line with how he campaigned. But is he after financial security? If so, why is he pushing through tax cuts? And why won’t he back off gutting future bargaining rights in exchange for the unions accepting the cuts he’s proposed, as they’ve offered to do?

>As far as the Democratic senators, they remind me more of 6 year olds on a playground who take their ball and go home because they are losing than of grownups representing a portion of the state of Wisconsin.

An interesting choice of images given that Walker’s position is that the unions need to take the deal as he’s offering it, including giving up the right to ever negotiate again, or else he’ll make the deficit worse on purpose.

Unions

Poor choice of words with disingenuous, but biased seems too weak or too something... I guess my biggest point on the first piece of your response is that both sides seem unwilling to discuss all the issues and I fear your post just continues that argument without leaving open room for discussion.
As far as their sacrifices under Gov. Doyle, I would merely point out they were short-term fixes, a tactic our former Governor was far too willing to take. At the time, the options were layoffs or furloughs, neither of which was considered palatable by the unions. They did accept the furloughs, but true change in the economic reality we live in now requires more.
The tax question is a difficult one and I certainly concede it appears silly to ask for tax cuts at the same time as he is making requests for concessions by the State workers. However, being a small business owner in Wisconsin, I can tell you the tax burden from the State, the Feds and the local municipalities is excessive. I understand my duty as a middle-class American to pay my fair share to help support the less fortunate members of our society. I even recognize the need for many of the programs the government runs. I also believe the government is doing a poor job of dealing with the financial realities of this time. I do not believe increasing taxes is a good idea because I truly believe it will run many of us out of business, or certainly require cutbacks at a time when our economy cannot afford any more losses of jobs. I believe he is after financial security and I believe he is doing so in the best way possible. We can argue economics at this point, but I fear it would not change either of our positions.
On your point of collective bargaining, I truly am a believer in unions and their rights. My family of origin survived through the protections offered due to my father's union membership. I do believe Governor Walker is wrong in asking for the destruction of collective bargaining rights, but I also must add that unions as we know them now, specifically WEAC, are too powerful and unwilling to work towards real change in a system that appears to be hopelessly flawed. Real compromise must come from both sides of the aisle. I fear it will come from neither.
The point concerning the Democratic Senators acting like six-year olds goes back to my previous statement. One side needs to stand up and be willing to negotiate in good faith and hope the other side is willing to do the same. I believe they escalated this debate to a level that was truly unnecessary and certainly counter-productive when they chose to leave the State. It is difficult to suddenly need to negotiate as the minority party after enjoying majority status for so long. Unfortunately for Democrats, they are the minority in Wisconsin. I truly believe they were totally wrong in walking out on the government of the State of Wisconsin and I hold them at least 51% responsible for the predicament we find ourselves in at this time.
As you can see, I still have not found a politician Ican believe in 100%. Maybe someday it will happen, but I will not hold my breath.

Thank you both...

....for respectfully arguing your points. Excellent job.

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