In the Arena

The Wisconsin Vote

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I was on John King’s CNN show last night and I watched Brian Kennedy of the Wisconsin branch of the American Federation of Teachers say two notable things. First he said that state assembly had “taken a baseball bat to the head of democracy” by voting to limit the powers of public employees unions. This was mystifying: the vote was a rather difficult exercise in democracy, with more than a few members of the Republican-dominated legislature voting against their personal interests–getting reelected–since the polls indicate that a majority of Badgers and Cheese-heads favor the unions. In any case, there is zero percentage for the unions to argue that the exercise of democracy is a blow to democracy. One hopes there weren’t any social studies teachers taking up the cry.

Then Kennedy said that the vote was about the Republicans wanting to “deliver this state to the Republican nominee in 2012.” This was revealing. For a great many people–certainly for the Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, and the union leadership–this fight has been about little more than political power. The budget consequences were minimal, especially after the unions essentially conceded the Governor’s pension and health care demands. But the power of public employees unions, especially teachers, to organize in favor of the candidates they favor is probably the most important political tool that Democrats have to counter the money power of corporate America, augmented by the Supreme Court’s radical Citizens Union decision.

And therefore the unions are correct when they say that this fight was never about the budget, or even mostly about reform, it was about them. The tell-tale and, I believe, egregiously unnecessary, provisions in Walker’s bill had to do with ending the union’s right to collect dues out of the workers’ paychecks and the requirement that the unions conduct a recertification vote every year. (I also suspect that this is what the unions were most het up about–it goes to the heart of their ability to organize and act as a political force.) The other unnecessary Walker provision was the one limiting union demand to pay raises reflecting the consumer price index. Most public employees are underpaid now, many severely so, and they should have the right to argue for the highest wage floors they can get–and if we citizens know what’s good for us, we should back them in their quest.

I also agree with those commentators who’ve predicted that, in the immediate future, Walker’s overreach will be a significant problem for Republicans–the Democratic base is motivated and howling now; it will be out in force in 2012.

But…You knew that “but” was coming, right?

Reform was necessary. And, in at least one way, it has been achieved: with the Wisconsin politicians no longer able to grant invisible–to the public–concessions on fringe benefits that kick in somewhere down the road and work rules, the focus of ¬†future negotiations will have to be on wages, which is a good thing. The willingness of politicians to make up in fringes what they were afraid to grant in wages has been an enduring travesty. The future pension and health care liabilities to public workers in many states are unsustainable–and inappropriate given the hits that private sector workers have taken in the globalization frenzy.

I’ve saved the most important point for last. My interest in this issue has little to do with the budget questions (indeed, I’ve written often here that I’m in favor of dealing with our national pension and health care ¬†“crises” by paying higher taxes to fund them.) My initial and continuing interest, starting 30 years ago, has to do with the quality of public services, especially public schools.

There is no way on earth that unions should have the power to block a $125 million private gift in Detroit to build 5 charter schools. There is no way that the unions in Manitowoc County in Wisconsin should have the power to keep open a juvenile detention facility that houses only 2 juveniles at a cost of $650,000 per year, especially when there’s a facility in the next county eager to house them. These are not isolated incidents. Featherbedding has been a constant union sin, since the beginning of the movement. It is the union equivalent of insider trading. It has no place in government.

And there is no way that unions–especially those that purport to represent professionals–should control hiring, firing and merit pay. It is simply amazing to me that teachers–and I’ve had this conversation a hundred times over the years–can not understand the principle that obtains in much of the private sector: management has the right to fire, and to lay off according to the quality of the employee, not seniority.

This is how the real world operates. And yes, sometimes it’s unfair. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, managers will make employment decisions they believe will strengthen their product–because they’re accountable, too. (The idea that many big city principals are not accountable because they’ve got unions of their own approaches the obscene–we’ll never have really good schools until principals are held accountable for the product they’re providing.)

The question of who gets laid off and how it’s done hits very close to home for me. We’ve gone through several brutal rounds of layoffs and buyouts at Time Magazine these past few years–and the older, higher paid workers took a disproportionate hit. These were not easy decisions; I watched the editors suffer over them. In several cases, I thought the decisions were unfair. More often, the older workers who were laid off had “lost their legs”–our term of art for getting burned out–and weren’t adding much to the magazine. Most often of all, the younger workers who replaced them had been making their way up the career ladder and were ready to take the next step. In the end, I think the infusion of fresh blood has made us a more vigorous–and profitable (phew!)–magazine, although I do miss the institutional memory and savvy that some of my old comrades in arms brought to the table. Certainly, if Time hadn’t made the reforms–with a simultaneous eye toward improving the quality of the magazine by hiring or promoting almost all the writers you read here on Swampland in the past five years (Massimo Calabresi and Mark Thompson are noble exceptions), we would not have survived. There is no equivalent rigor in the public schools, and there must be, if we’re going to do the best for our children.

The point is, the public employees unions have done grave damage to their reputation over the years by refusing to acknowledge the reforms crying out to be made as public education assembly lines became anachronistic in the information age and ¬†incompetent as other countries ramped up their education infrastructure. (And no, I don’t diminish the role of brain-dead local school boards and of parents too busy, or lazy, to turn off the TV and stow the Xboxes).

And now, the unions’ myopia has combined with the mean-spirited myopia of a radical group of Republican politicians–few of whom have ever convinced me that they actually care about quality public services–to create a perfect storm. The country will suffer as a result of this.