To me, there are two tip-offs that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s recent union busting crusade isn’t completely on the level. First is his insistence on blaming collective bargaining rights for his state’s budget mess.
Governor Walker says his proposals are all about fiscal necessity. “We’re broke,” he declared in a press conference last week. “Like nearly every state across the country, we don’t have any more money.” But state workers have already agreed to accept Walker’s demands for them to contribute more to their health insurance and pension systems to help close the $3.3 billion deficit. Walker has refused these concessions, and is maintaining his insistence on curtailing collective bargaining rights. Is this just good fiscal probity on his part?
Well there does seem to be some positive association between a state’s budget deficit and the percentage of public workers in unions. But there is no correlation between state deficit and the existence or absense of public-sector collective bargaining rights. The states have all different kinds of collective bargaining policies for public workers, but as Walker himself rightly notes, all states are in some form of a major financial mess.
If it’s not some spontaneous surge in nefarious collective bargaining activity that has bankrupted the states, what other post-2008 economic news could account for the shortfalls? Hmm, let’s think back. Oh yes, plummeting state revenues as a result of the deepest recession in 80 years! Housing sector crashes, unemployment spikes, demand for state services increases sharply, income and sales tax revenue plummets since people aren’t working or buying anything; states can’t deficit-spend, federal government won’t help much. Voilà, financial crisis! It somehow all fits together without Gov. Walker’s magic collective-bargaining glue.
States certainly were not alone in failing to predict or plan against such a historic downturn. And previous state governments were no doubt reckless in assuming unrealistic rates of return in their pension funds. But contrary to the prevailing narrative, the pension shortfalls aren’t really so bad, and are almost entirely the result of the stock market crash. And apart from recession effects, as is true in every other sector of the U.S. economy, it is not retirement benefit schemes (state pensions or Social Security) but health care spending growth that is the main driver of long-term public- and private-sector fiscal woes. But thinking up solutions to get health care spending growth under control is hard. Much easier to just blame the greedy public workers and their preference for freely associating and assembling with one another.
Though of course, not all public workers. No, the governor wants us to believe it is presence of certain collective bargaining rights for certain public-sector workers that constitutes a big chunk of the blame for his budget problems.
This leads to the next hint that there is more political grandstanding than substance in the governor’s gambit: his decision to exempt police and firefighters from all of the proposed changes. These sectors will see no curtailing of their collective bargaining rights. The most common argument I’ve seen for this is some variation on the theme that since public safety employees put their lives in danger, they should be treated better than other public workers (such as teachers’ unions, towards whom the governor seems to harbor a particular antipathy) who toil in less dangerous sectors. Governor Walker has endorsed a version of this, saying on Meet the Press that he exempted police and fire fighters not as a “value judgement” on teachers, but because a police or fire fighter strike for even a day would endanger public safety. I don’t think these arguments hold up.
First, Wisconsin’s police and firefighter unions have come out in solidarity against Walker’s attempt to curtail the bargaining rights of other workers.
- Second, if he is so worried about a police or fire fighter strike shouldn’t he want to pare back, rather than preserve, their rights to act and bargain collectively? If you fear a strike, it seems bizarre to insist on making them the most powerful unions in the state. And isn’t it an unfair attack on the character of Wisconsin’s law enforcement and fire fighters to imply they would reflexively endanger the public safety by striking? Maybe they are not as shallow and parochial as Gov. Walker thinks?
Here is my main problem with Walker’s logic. Gov. Walker thinks collective bargaining for cops is a necessary benefit that helps ensure steady recruitment and retention of good people; but collective bargaining for teachers is a force for ill that drains the public purse and leads to the retention of bad people. It would take some amazing grand theory to explain the different mechanisms across the different sectors. I would argue that in most places a good-teacher shortage is a much more pressing problem than a good-cop shortage. If collective bargaining is such a valuable tool to stave off strikes and shortages, why not deploy it universally? If it’s because Gov. Walker cares less about teacher strikes and shortages than he does about police strikes and shortages, how on earth is that not a values judgment?
My point is, I have no idea if public collective bargaining power is a net good or a net bad for society. But I know it does not cause state budget crises and it does not cause global recessions. And whatever its effect, I think it works in the same way across different sectors. Some public sectors are more dangerous and some are more important and higher-skill. We presumably need good quality people in all of them. Fiddling with collective bargaining rights in one or the other sector doesn’t make sense other than as a political play or an expression of ideological animus.
I think one factor at play in this case is an extension of Republican dogma’s fetish with “toughness” and “strength,” and the mad-lib style of politics that leads Republicans to identify tough cool things like fighting crime or fires as “conservative,” and weak things like PBS and clean energy as liberal and elite, and therefore worthy of opprobrium. Culture war nonsense, in other words, and in Wisconsin it is obscuring more problems than it is solving.