A Few More Words About Unions

Specifically, the ones in Wisconsin. There are two things on my mind, and no one here care’s to talk about them so I’m sharing them with you instead.

First, I’m absolutely appalled by Governor Walker’s behavior here, in the sense that he seems to me completely unserious about fixing the state budget, and simply fixated on starting to erode the foundations of unionization. I have a couple of friends here from Wisconsin, and both of them tell me that, while this is increasingly less true elsewhere in the country, labor unions and the Democratic party remain tightly wed in Wisconsin, to the point that people still talk about “voting labor.” So it’s hard not to assume Governor Walker’s real objective here is just the destruction of a key piece of an organization that strongly supports his opponents (it would be a bit like a Democratic governor trying to outlaw the Chamber of Commerce, or Fox News).

I do understand his claim that doing so is part of an process of reducing the state’s budget shortfall: in principle, at least, if you had a group that was consistently demanding more than its fair share of the state’s budget, I can see how you might feel that a one-time cut wasn’t good enough, because they’d just bargain it back in the future. Except that if the group proves itself open to taking the fiscal well-being of the state into account, let’s say, by voluntarily accepting all of your proposed cuts and restrictions, then you probably don’t have as much to worry about as you thought. Furthermore, while it’s true that denying bargaining power to someone you have to work with is a good way to help yourself cut corners, it’s kind of an odd position for a conservative politician to take. Gov. Walker’s position seems to be that the public labor unions don’t need a voice because they can trust the government to make the right decisions about how much money they deserve and what kind of benefits are fair. Why wouldn’t this argument extend to private labor? Heck, wouldn’t this kind of thinking mean that the government should also deprive all citizens of their right to vote against tax increases, and just trust that the government will raise them only as much as is necessary?

Ah yes, but somewhere Grover Norquist is grumbling that raising taxes too high stifles innovation and crushes small business, ultimately leaving us unprepared for the future and hurting the economy. Now if only quality public education had any measurable benefits along those lines…

Alright, that was point one. But now I actually have to say something on the other side of this. As much as I hate what Governor Walker is trying to accomplish, I actually can’t approve of the way it played out from the Wisconsin state democrats. As much as I’d like to be thrilled by their sneaky flee-the-state maneuver to try to stall the bill until a compromise could be reached, it’s not how things should be done. I have spent a lot of time in the past year railing against the filibustering tactics republicans in the US Senate have used to effectively turn the requirement for passing a law into a 60% supermajority, which is absurd and against the spirit of our legislative system. The same thing is true in Wisconsin: Republicans succeeded in securing an elected majority, which they thought should be sufficient to pass their agenda, and it’s not any more appropriate for the democrats to try to circumvent that than it was when the Republicans did the same thing to many of the proposals Obama backed.

Now, I know what the response to this will be: that the filibuster and other such delaying tactics are meant to be a last resort reserved to prevent a majority from instituting tyranny on a helpless minority, and that since Walker was trying to strip public employees of basic rights, this constitutes just such a crisis. I don’t know about that. It may be a matter of personal taste, and it may be because I grew up in an era where I was not able to fully appreciate the importance of a union, but this one didn’t feel like it passed the “extraordinary circumstance” test to me. No one was being deprived of their right to vote, own property, share public drinking fountains, etc. And as far as I’m concerned, we should be as conservative (little c) as possible with the use of the filibuster. Because as soon as one side invokes it for something that’s not clearly a “big deal,” the other will feel entitled to do it as well. And the result is things like the filibuster of Obamacare, which doesn’t even remotely feel like tyranny of the majority to me (even though I’m one who’s required to have heath insurance by it!) but obviously did to some people.

Of course, we live in a world where filibustering tactics do exist and are used fairly frequently. I think that should change, but given that it hasn’t, I have to echo Ezra “the-only-reason-Colin-still-reads-the-Washington-post” Klein in saying that, frustrating as Walker’s legal trickery was yesterday, really the system played out just about the only way that could be expected (short of, you know, Walker trying to reach some kind of compromise). In Klein’s words:

Democrats were able to slow the process down and convince both voters in Wisconsin and the national media that there was something beyond business as usual happening in Madison. National and state polls show they were successful in that effort. Walker and the Senate Republicans ignored the Democrats’ attempts at compromise and ignored the public turning against them and decided to pass the legislation anyway.

I think if you engage in a filibuster, particularly over an issue that isn’t a last-ditch attempt to prevent literal tyranny, than this is about all you can expect. But that’s the last bone I’m willing to toss the Wisconsin Republicans on this one. Since they all got to scream bloody murder and call us unamerican when we passed the ACA, I won’t fault anyone in Wisconsin who wants to complain about a bill that reduces their freedom’s being “jammed down their throats.” Bring on the recall elections.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to A Few More Words About Unions

  1. Moominmamma says:

    I have read other Wisconsonites who say the same thing as your friends about the deeply intertwined nature of unions, Democrats, and the political process in their state. Wisconsin has a long and important history of progressivism, and it would seem that unions are a deep part of the psyche of the people of that state. Because that situation is less familiar to those of us from elsewhere, I think it is hard for many of us to imagine just how violent a breach of society Gov. Walker’s proposals are.

    I therefore disagree with you that leaving the state was an unnecessary step that should not have been taken by Senate Democrats. This bill burst on the scene like a supernova.Contrary to talking points, Walker had not campaigned on this issue. It was to be hurriedly voted on. With an overwhelming Republican majority, Democrats had no recourse but to resort to a perfectly legal maneuver, denying the senate a quorum*. This did allow, as Klein says, time for the facts on this bill to emerge. And they were truly ugly, not only for public sector unions and collective bargaining rights, but for “BadgerCare” (medical coverage for the poor) participants and even for wetlands (tax incentives for municipalities to convert wetlands to non-wetland parcels).

    Turns out that, once aware of the heinous nature of the bill, Wisconsonites were appalled. This might have turned the tide against the bill, except that the governor and his Republican colleagues have pulled another dirty trick out of their hats and (perhaps illegally) separated the union-busting portion of the bill from the rest, and passed it under the rules governing non-spending bills, which do not require the same number of senators present. By doing this, Gov. Walker has revealed the duplicity of his position all along. This bill was never about solving budget woes. This bill was about busting the unions, and (according to an interview with one of the two brothers who each head up the separate chambers of the Wisconsin state house), destroying the Democratic party in Wisconsin and defeating President Obama in 2012. Well, when you can’t win on the issues, I guess your best bet is to disenfranchise the opposition through dirty tricks and voter restrictions ( a whole ‘nother topic). I think the Democrats who left did the entire country a favor.

    While we are on the topic, I would just like to emphasize that the pensions received by public employees (and private ones, too, those lucky enough to still have a pension) are not “gifts” from the taxpayers (or the company) in the pensioner’s old age. They are deferred compensation for a job that was done twenty or thirty years earlier. It is money owed by the employer to the worker, and is contractually obligated (though pension contract obligations seem to have less import than, say, the contractual obligation for someone to pay off a credit card bill. Can’t quite figure out why/snark). When an employee is asked to “pay more” for their retirement, the result is a salary cut in the present. There is only one compensation pie, but it can be divided many ways between salary, health benefits, and pension. But there is only one pie. There are basically two reasons why states are having trouble fulfilling their pension obligations today. The first is the Wall Street crash two years ago that wiped out hundreds of billions of (I’ve even seen “a trillion”) dollars in pension fund assets. The second is the chicanery practiced by numerous politicians in the last twenty or so years, as governors cut taxes and sought to cover the costs of government by raiding pension funds. Oddly enough, the tax cuts did not create enough new revenue to cover the tax cuts, and now public employees are being told to suck it up and pay the price for these two debacles. The Wall Street moguls, you’ll notice, aren’t even being asked to pay pennies on the dollar to make up for the funds lost through their greed and dishonesty, but a custodian or a snow plow driver or a teacher or a wildlife biologist is to pay the price. For a historical perspective on the raid-the-pensions process, read the newspaper articles published about Christie Todd Whitman’s (R-NJ) pension raid at http://mediamatters.org/mobile/blog/201103070032 They predicted the very shortfalls that current NJ Republican governor Chris Christie is also trying balance on the backs of public employees.

    Unions have been vilified and and reduced in number for the last thirty years. It is therefore no wonder that young people have so little experience or knowledge of them. I worry that not enough young people know enough U.S. history to understand how brutal life can be when individual employees are “on their own” in dealing with an employer. Nor do I think many in the U.S. are aware of how much unions have contributed to the quality of life enjoyed by the middle class. I see the current frenzy for union-busting as a way to break the back of the middle class in this country and leave millions of people powerless in the face of corporate greed. I have recently read some fascinating statistics which I think would be of interest to you, but I do not have time to put them together tonight (hmmmm…do I sound like a certain French mathematician?). I will try to gather them and perhaps comment on this post again.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I wish to inform your readers that I am a public employee. I am not a member of a union, but I do belong to an association that bargains collectively with my employer for both my compensation package and some details of my working conditions (readers, you’ll be happy to know, they must give me a lunch break. At least, I hope you’ll be happy to know that). Contrary to what Rush Limbaugh thinks, I am not “maggot-infested”. I promise.

    *Interesting historical note: Abraham Lincoln once jumped out of a second story window to deny a quorum in the Illinois state legislature.

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