a blog from Wisconsin’s west coast
(the opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the author only, and do not represent the opinions of Fulcrum or its employees)
“We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom.”
—Stephen Vincent Benét, Litany for Dictatorships, 1936
Seven years ago, Fulcrum launched a book series called Speaker’s Corner, with the intention of increasing civil dialogue on a variety of issues facing America and the world today. In 2011, we will be launching several new initiatives in support of this endeavor, which will be discussed in a future blog. We live in a world today where civility is largely absent from our political interactions; increasingly, politicians on both sides see black and white in a world that is largely gray. It is my hope and intention that through the expansion of this series, we will contribute to building the much-needed bridges for constructive debate in the future.
The absence of constructive debate has really hit home with the continuing troubles here in Wisconsin. Last night, the governor continued to dig in his heels on his unyielding stance on benefits for public employees (which is troubling given the compromises offered by the public employee unions as well as by one brave Republican state senator, Dale Schultz). The movement has now become national, with similar efforts in Indiana and Ohio and rallies in support of the unions across the country (including 1,000 supporters in Colorado). There are many troubling underlying aspects to this issue, many of which go well beyond Wisconsin and public employee benefits. To wit:
The keeping of campaign pledges. The governor of Wisconsin has repeatedly stressed that he has given the voters in the state, who elected him as well as a Republican legislature last November, exactly what he pledged in his campaign. Unfortunately, neither the governor nor any of his supporters has of yet been able to produce any evidence that the governor campaigned on a pledge of ending collective bargaining for public employee unions. He did indicate that he would seek concessions from the unions in terms of their benefits (which the unions have offered, an offer ignored by the governor), but nowhere did he indicate that this basic right to collective bargaining would be abridged. To my mind, this gives moral force not only to the efforts of the protesters, but also the 14 democratic senators who refuse to return to the state until the governor agrees to discuss this issue. Had this issue been a part of the governor’s campaign pledge in the fall, his actions today would be reasonable, as voters would have had an opportunity to debate and process the issue. Sadly, this did not happen, and thus the voters are left with a leader taking unanticipated actions.
But the Democrats did the same thing. A lot has been made about President Obama forcing healthcare reform on the nation, and the notion that by doing this, he set a precedent that the Republicans are merely following. A few critical differences. First, while the final vote on healthcare was held using arcane parliamentary rules (something I disagree with regardless of party), the whole public debate on healthcare reform was out there for many months prior to passage. Remember all the vitriolic public forums preceding final passage? In Wisconsin, the governor has attempted to push through significant legislation not only with a lack of public debate (and no indication of compromise, which at least President Obama attempted to do), but to do so in a mere week, simply because he “had the votes.” Moreover, President Obama campaigned in part on healthcare reform; unlike the Wisconsin governor, he put the idea out there for voters to process and to vote on. Finally, there is the old-fashioned notion that two wrongs simply do not make a right. Even if a case could be made against the other two points above, does one really want to do something wrong simply because somebody else did it first?
Follow the money. More than one commentator has made the observation that what is really going on here has little to do with workers’ rights and collective bargaining, and more to do with money in politics. It seems to me this is an astute observation. For those of you who have read our book The Blueprint (Speaker’s Corner, 978-1-93621-800-4) released last year, you will see that authors Rob Witwer and Adam Schrager were on top of this bigger story well before the national media; this book, which received positive endorsements from commentators on both the left and the right, should be required reading for anyone interested in how money shapes politics today. By eliminating the power of the unions, which are the biggest contributor to Democratic Party campaigns, a significant base for candidate funding would be eliminated. Now, I am very much in favor of removing the influence of money in politics; but until we are able to create strong and fair legislation to achieve this end, it seems to me that eliminating union influence would create an uneven playing field for the near future, tilted to one party’s favor.
Unions are the enemy. The saddest outcome of this debate, in my opinion, has revolved around the status of union employees. These union members are our neighbors, our teachers, the local firefighters and police officers, the kind faces we see at city hall, the nurses and EMTs who take care of us, the state employees who diligently work to make the state a better place. They are not the enemy. Yet, the Wisconsin governor has created a situation where middle-class private sector employees are at odds with middle-class public employees. This to me is class warfare at its ugliest. I don’t want to dwell on the canard that state employees are somehow overpaid, other than to note that there are several studies that conclude that, including benefits, public employees tend to be underpaid, and I have yet to see a study that contradicts these findings. To ask these public employees to take a lion’s share of the pain in the midst of a state budget shortfall (I hesitate to use the word crisis, because Wisconsin’s problems, while significant, pale compared to those of other states), to in effect brand them as the enemy while giving tax cuts to corporations, seems unethical. The perception that unions are bad in general, that they have somehow outlived their usefulness, is also troubling. While I would agree that unions have at times taken advantage of political situations to forward their agenda (as have corporations, the wealthy, etc.), they have also provided many of the good things that benefit all workers. Think safe workplaces, healthcare, minimum wage, child labor laws, and the list goes on. In the grand scheme of things, unions have done much more good than bad. And they continue to be vital to providing a voice to workers. The basic right to collectively bargain is provided in the UN Declaration of Human Rights; I do not understand what we gain as a society by removing this right.
Why do I, a private employer, care about this situation? To put it simply, what is happening here in Wisconsin is not only a referendum on the future of public employee unions, it is a turning point where we Americans determine what sort of country we want to have in the future. Do we want to live in a nation where dialogue should precede large decisions? Or should we simply vest power in our leaders, to use at their whim? Do we want a level playing field for the free exchange of ideas and opinions? Do we want all sides to be heard? Do we want to protect and grow the middle class or do we only want to protect those with the most wealth?
The governor of Wisconsin, along with other state governments across the country, certainly has the power to decide many of these issues; they must recognize, however, that the wisdom comes from including all of the people in the debate.
To learn more about the Speaker’s Corner series and to see a list of titles, please click here.