Attention diverted this week from unrest in the Mideast to unrest in the American Midwest. The great state of Wisconsin has become ground zero in the country’s most intense labor battle in decades, as government employees mobilize to defend their rights (and, just as importantly, benefits) from a hostile Republican governor.
As is the case in most states, Wisconsin’s government employees — a broad category of workers including teachers, cops, firefighters, civil servants, nurses, and others — are all unionized, and thus negotiate for raises and benefits not as individuals, but rather through their union bosses with high-level representatives of the state government, in a practice known as collective bargaining. Collective bargaining in turn begets collective agreements, enormously detailed, sprawling contracts between union and government that set out, in great minutia, everything from how often workers will be given pay hikes to whose funerals they can attend and still receive full pay. Once established, the terms of these agreements have all the force of law; the government cannot easily pull out or alter the terms of the contract except at pre-approved negotiation time (usually once every four or five years) or else face the legal consequences of breaching a binding contract.
In practice, collective agreements between governments and their employees tend to be extremely generous. Indeed, there’s not really much debate about it these days; unless you’re a CEO, or some other top-ranking corporate type, if you work in the private sector you will almost certainly take home a smaller paycheque, be protected by a worse health plan, be easier to fire, and work longer hours with fewer holidays, than someone doing roughly similar work for a state or federal employer.
The root causes of this phenomenon are not too obscure. If a private businessman gives his employees too many sick days and devotes too much of his budget to salaries, the efficiency of the business will suffer, and he may find it increasingly impossible to turn a profit. No such concerns in the public sector! Since tax dollars continue to flow in regardless how well or poorly managed government services are, there’s no real pressure for the state to provide the best performance for the smallest financial input. At worst, over-paying and over-perking government employees will merely drive the state into bankruptcy, but hey, that’s a problem for another day.
Likewise, while private sector strikes are damagingly only to the businesses they target (you, the consumer can always shop at some non-striking supermarket), public sector strikes have the capacity to significantly cripple vital state-provided services to which there is no non-government alternative — things like schools, DMVs, post offices, libraries, and garbage collection — and thus cause significant societal breakdown. From a political perspective, helping instigate strikes also tends to broadcast a strong message of mismanagement and incompetence that most politicos are understandably keen to avoid.
More sinisterly, government employee unions are also notoriously political, and can force dangerously symbiotic partisan alliances to ensure their employment contracts always remain as opulent and benefit-rich as possible. In America, this is very much the nature of the relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party; the former funds the latter during election time, and in exchange, the Dems act as a vanguard of the status quo when it’s time to renegotiate sick days.
Predictably, the most heavily and well-protected union states in America are thus also the bluest. But now Wisconsin, once amongst the bluest of blue, has a Republican governor and Republican-majority legislature, and is moving swiftly to change the rules of the game.
In an effort to reduce the large percentage of his deficit-plagued state’s budget currently eaten up by government salaries and benefits, Governor Scott Walker is trying to push through a bill that will a) increase the government’s cut of worker salaries to pay for their health and pension pans, and, more controversially, b) limit the jurisdiction of future collective bargaining to wages only, and c) make union dues voluntary.
The Governor’s gamble is that once government employees lose their rights to collectively-established benefits, the benefits they negotiate as individuals will inevitably be smaller and more affordable. Likewise, if union dues become voluntary, the presumption is that more Wisconsinites will simply chose to opt-out, and elect to keep more of their salary in their own pocket, even if this means fewer legally uncompromisable benefits (which they may or may not even fully exploit, anyway).
In response to all this, Wisconsin’s public sector unions have predictably gone into full attack mode, staging massive protests in the state’s capital building in order to stand in solidarity against what they (fairly accurately) describe as heavy-handed union-busting. The Democratic members of the state assembly, in turn, have resorted to weird filibuster tactics to prevent the Governor’s bill from passing the legislature, literally fleeing the state in order to prevent parliamentary quorum from being reached.
Does all this drama move you? There was a time, not so very long ago, when the idea of a “union protest” would conjure up images of the soot-streaked working class, desperately pleading with old man Rockefeller for less explosive mine shafts, or some such. Now, however, in this era where the majority of unionized Americans work comfortable, white-collar jobs in taxpayer-funded office buildings, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to muster significant sympathy for their plight. Indeed, the Governor has done his best to ensure the union side looks as unsympathetic as possible, specifically excluding the state’s police and firefighters from his reforms; two groups who still exude a fairly strong working class sensibility in appearance and culture, if not necessarily wealth or lifestyle.
Rather than some epic episode of class warfare, I believe what’s going on in Wisconsin is something more akin to a civil war within the ranks of the educated elite. And the educated elite strikes me as a group of people whom it is not terribly unfair to ask some sacrifices of, in the wake of the country’s current economic woes.