Quick, which new Republican governor said earnestly in a campaign ad last year, "Real leadership
means bringing people together to solve problems"? That would be Wisconsin's Scott Walker, whose plan to sharply curtail bargaining and political rights for unions has set off daily mass protests in Madison, an exodus of Democratic state lawmakers to Illinois, and broad questions about the future of organized labor.
Give Walker credit for taking a cue from President Barack Obama and not letting a crisis go to waste. Confronted with the Great Recession, Obama used that crisis to pursue some of his top goals. Walker is faced with a $3.6 billion budget deficit and is doing likewise. Conservatives, beyond thrilled, say turnabout is fair play. "Elections have consequences
! LOL," as one newspaper commenter wrote.
Obama signed a stimulus law laden with his priorities: high-speed rail, high-speed Internet, energy conservation, renewable energy, education reforms. He crammed a lot of his 2008 campaign platform – things he talked about incessantly as needed for future prosperity -- into that $800 billion package.
Is that what Walker is doing? Trying to do what he told voters he'd do? I'm not so sure.
Byron Shafer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said in an e-mail that "the present conflict seems very straightforward" because Walker's theme throughout the campaign was that "public-sector workers are now making more than private-sector workers, while having less competition and more security -- and that the state budget would never get fixed if this were not fixed."
And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press" that Walker specifically put "renegotiating and reforming collective bargaining" on the table during his campaign. Graham even held out a campaign flyer in which "Wisconsin unions said if you elect this guy Scott Walker, he's going to reform or limit collective bargaining."
Yet it's hard to find evidence of Walker's intentions in his ads, on his campaign website
, in write-ups of debates, anywhere. It is safe to say that he didn't focus his campaign on "taking decades of union law and throwing it out the window and trying to bust the unions altogether," as Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach – one of the exiles trying to prevent action on Walker's bill -- put it Monday on the CBS "Early Show."
The details came in a Feb. 11 letter
from Walker to state employees. Bargaining would be limited to base pay (no bargaining over benefits). Contracts would be limited to one year. Unions would have to take annual votes to keep their certification as unions. Employers would be barred from collecting dues and members would not be required to pay them. "Local police and fire employees and State Patrol Troopers and Inspectors are exempted from these changes," Walker wrote.
Walker's bill also would require public employees to contribute more
to their health insurance and pension funds. He talked about that often during his campaign
and he's now getting no argument
on it. "Money issues are off the table
," Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said Sunday. "Public employees have agreed to Governor Walker's pension and health care concessions, which he says will solve the budget challenge."
The clash, therefore, is no longer about cash. At this point, with a Republican House and GOP governors looking to Walker and Wisconsin to show them the way, it is about the survival of unions as an economic and political force.
Walker said Monday on MSNBC that he is not comfortable being called a union buster
(interviewer Chuck Todd's phrase) because "in the end what I am is, I'm a budget balancer." It was a typical segue, or conflation, or perhaps evasion. Throughout the interview, asked repeatedly about his bargaining, dues and certification proposals, Walker usually responded by talking about the need to cut pension and health costs – which union members already have agreed to do.
Asked specifically about exemptions for the unions that backed him, Walker called that a bogus issue because only four of 314 police and fire unions supported him. Voters might have gotten a different impression, however, from a TV ad that featured leaders of Milwaukee police and firefighter unions criticizing Walker's Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. "The union members that work for Barrett now support Scott Walker
," a narrator says.
Judging by that ad and others, some voters may have thought they were electing a compassionately conservative, consensus-building union sympathizer. What is perhaps surprising, given the leadership image Walker tried to project in the campaign, is the hardness of the conflict (Barrett said Monday that Walker has ignited an "ideological war") and Walker's unwillingness to compromise.
On Monday he rejected a Republican state senator's proposal to curtail collective bargaining for two years rather than permanently, see how it plays out and have a longer discussion. "Short-term fixes are why we're in this trouble," Walker said on MSNBC. "We're passing the buck on if we don't make long-term sustainable changes."
Walker's appetite for conflict is triggering concerns from a wide range of people and groups. Jennifer Alexander, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber does not support "the adversarial way
" elected officials are approaching the deficit problem. "Given this state's long history of collective bargaining, policy changes of this magnitude should be thoroughly debated for an adequate period of time, in good faith by both sides, with all potential consequences considered. Currently, that is not happening," she said in a statement.
Tracy Fuller, executive board president of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association
, went public last week with multiple regrets. "I specifically regret the endorsement of the Wisconsin Troopers' Association for Governor Scott Walker," he said. "I regret the governor's decision to 'endorse' the troopers and inspectors of the Wisconsin State Patrol. I regret being the recipient of any of the perceived benefits provided by the governor's anointing." Later, with his regrets on record, he said he was not authorized to speak for the troopers' association and removed the statement.
Even before Walker launched what Obama said seems like an "assault" on unions, they were in decline
. It seems strange to be worrying about the very existence of unions – the engine that built the middle class -- in the context of rampant joblessness, decades of income stagnation and increasingly vast concentrations of wealth at the top.
This is not an argument for unions to be shielded against "shared sacrifice" during a miserable recession. It is, however, an argument for Walker to show "real leadership" as he defined it in his campaign.
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