Newly-elected politicians are often the maestros of political opportunism, cloaking their schemes with the language of the electoral mandate. So, we should not be surprised that Scott Walker — the Republican governor-elect of Wisconsin — is attempting to take advantage of the financial crisis in order to cripple the unions, which are entrenched in the state’s politics and largely supporters of the Democratic Party.
Obviously, this fight is not only about the budget and the massive deficit facing Walker in the coming years. The public sector unions are not out of touch with reality. They know the numbers. Accordingly, the largest public union in the state has agreed to the proposed increases in contributions to pension funds and health care premiums, which would amount to a 6 to 8 percent decrease in the take-home pay of the average public sector employee.
Across the country, public sector unions have agreed to such concessions. Through the process of collective bargaining, governments and unions have shown the ability to cooperate in order to address budget shortfalls and find solutions to a litany of other problems. Public employees in Wisconsin are willing to cooperate. In return for their concessions, they asked that Walker allow the unions to retain their collective bargaining rights. The governor refused the offer.
One cannot deny that collective bargaining in government is an institution worthy of scrutiny. Collective bargaining is intended to protect workers from their inherently exploitative managers — to give workers a bigger piece of the profit pie that they create. Government workers are paid by, and therefore, accountable to taxpayers. Some have argued that collective bargaining in government is borderline illegal insofar as it confers special status to one segment of the citizenry.
But this debate sidesteps the most crucial facet of the tidal wave of anti-union regulation circulating through state legislatures. This is about politics. The unions have always been a scapegoat. Walker, not letting a good crisis go unused, can eliminate a political enemy, all while giving the appearance of fighting wasteful government spending.
Madison’s portrayal of the unions as giant monsters who care not for circumstances, interested only in destroying the state budget from the inside out, has a ready audience eager for government answers. One is reminded of the auto industry bailout debate, in which the manufacturers’ inability to keep up with global competitors was blamed on the union and its demand for high wages and exorbitant benefits. Lost in that debate was that it was not labor costs that put GM, Ford and Chrysler in its predicament — they were producing gas guzzlers that no one wanted. But the solution to that problem is more difficult than disarming the unions.
It is political opportunism that explains Walker’s actions. The governor’s plan to turn middle-class private sector workers against middle-class public sector workers is not succeeding. Poll figures show overwhelming support for Wisconsin’s union members. But as long as the narrative is controlled by the Republican legislature, the controversy will continue to focus upon Wisconsin’s budget and not on the real the debate — the politics of the working class.
Aaron King ’09 is a graduate student at Villanova University. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.