Wisconsin, Unions and Walker: What Now?

by Bill Daehler

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker quietly signed the controversial bill stripping many public Wisconsin unions of basic collective bargaining rights last Friday, setting the stage for a hero’s welcome to the fourteen Democratic senators returning from Illinois and energizing recall efforts for the Republican senate.

The movement to strip union rights from public employees is active around the country. There have been similar efforts in Idaho, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Florida and New Jersey. Democrats, unions and progressives around the country worry that, without strong unions providing sufficient resources to run viable candidates, business-backed Republicans will win all too easily.

In a healthy democratic society interest groups support political parties which in turn support their interests. In the age of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, money has never before played such a heavy handed role in politics. By weakening unions, cutting off their revenue stream, Republicans and their supporters will easily be able to saturate the airwaves with pro-business propaganda. 

Therefore expect unions and progressive interest groups to launch an all-out recall effort against Wisconsin’s Republican state senators to send warning to legislators around the country considering similar measures.  These groups are also hoping to recall Scott Walker once he reaches one year in office and it is legal to do so.  But since political discourse can change overnight unions are hoping to capitalize on the anger which drew well over 100,000 people to Madison this weekend to recall the eight eligible Republican senators.

ActBlue.com is fundraising for the recall effort, asking $25 from donors, along with many other organizations taking donations and gathering the necessary petitions for a recall.  These efforts will determine if voting against unions, specifically teachers union’s, becomes a political liability as it has been for decades.

What about the budget deficit?

Within any political controversy it is necessary to examine both sides of an issue and there will usually be shades of truth to any argument, Wisconsin is no different.

Yes, as Republicans argue, Wisconsin is facing a $137 million deficit for the fiscal year and a $3.6 billion dollar deficit over the following two years.  However, when addressing this deficit we must consider:

1)      Does collective bargaining for teachers’ wages, health care and benefits inordinately add to the deficit?

2)      Are there better means to cover the deficit?

3)      Most importantly, does collective bargaining, for teachers, result in a better educational system?

Gov. Walker argues the state should strip nearly all collective bargaining rights for many state workers to help cover the deficit of $3.6 billion.  However, Wisconsin had faced a more severe 2009 budget crisis during which a Democratic governor faced down a nearly $6 billion deficit with a series of spending cuts, tax increases and funds from the stimulus package, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

With the stimulus package long gone how else could Gov. Walker have covered this deficit? 

Walker had signed into law ‘job creating’ tax breaks for businesses and corporations.  While it is unknown exactly how much this will cost the state these measures must be weighed against cutting approximately 10% of teachers’ compensation.  However, the pay cuts were accepted by the unions leading one to wonder why basic collective bargaining rights would included in the bill at all.

Walker argues striping collective bargaining will allow greater local autonomy in dealing with budgetary issues, but Walker is a politician with a lot to gain from unfunded Democratic opponents without state-wide union-supported mobilization efforts and it is questionable whether the education system would benefit from increased local control.

Consider also that Wisconsin’s deficit is about 0.75% of its economic output over that period compared to neighboring Illinois whose deficit is 2.4%.  Illinois recently enacted a tax increase on individual and corporate income of around 66%. 

A fusion of tax increases, targeted spending cuts and credit (put towards investment in the future) could help cover the deficit.  But teachers and other public employees have already agreed to the necessary cuts.

In a time of economic recovery and fiscal illness it is not unfair to examine public unions’ benefits, especially pension contributions in the era of baby-boomer retirement, but to enact a 10% cut in compensation and strip collective bargaining rights reversing decades of hard earned labor rights is unfair, foolish and harmful to educational quality—yet the teachers have agreed with these cuts.

So with public employees taking on massive personal costs why go further and end collective bargaining rights?  Is it the right thing to do?

Education, rather quality education, should be the primary concern when addressing collective bargaining issues for teachers.  If the bill survives legal challenges, Wisconsin will join five states which ban collective bargaining and 10 states which don’t guarantee it.

According to Factcheck.com the five states’ banning collective bargaining for teachers are South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Virginia which rank 50th, 49th, 48th, 47th, and 44th respectively among all states for ACT/SAT scores.

Before being stripped of collective bargaining rights Wisconsin had ranked 2nd in the country.

Therefore, I believe the issue of collective bargaining rights is not a fiscal but rather a political (and moral) question.

Recall or Bust

Now comes the hard part for Democrats. Without a successful recall of at least one Republican senator the spread of union busting will all but kill a primary segment of the Democratic coalition.

This comes as Republicans around the country are proposing measures to injure the Democratic coalition.  In New Hampshire, Republicans have targeted young voters’ rights. There are GOP movements in numerous states to make voting more difficult; such as ID requirements that disproportionately affect the young, poor, minorities and other key democratic constituencies.

If Democrats can recall three Republicans, replacing them with Democrats, they will take back control of the senate.  But this is a tall order considering they need 25% of original voters to join petitions in order for a recall and then elect a Democrat.

For now union coffers are filling with donations from around the country to fund the recall effort.  But unless at least one Republican is successfully recalled, sending the signal to legislators around the country not to mess with traditional union rights, then union and working class advocates funding, political power and candidates will be permanently handicapped.

Bill Daehler is a spring intern for the American Humanist Association. He is currently enrolled at the University of Kansas.