Originally Published: February 22, 2011 9:58 p.m.
Editor's Note - Following is the extra information Courier columnist Tom Cantlon referred to in his column, "Making a living gets more complicated." To submit an article comment, visit the column at the link below.
The following is a list of information, points and some references regarding the conflict in Wisconsin, in no particular order.
The governor and Legislature aggravated the deficit. According to their own budget auditor, just last month they gave away almost enough to cover this year's budget gap. They gave it away in business tax breaks, in employment carrot, and in health saving account tax breaks. Apparently the last part out of wanting to do anything to avoid being part of the new health insurance expansion. The governor says there is a $137 million gap. They just gave away $117 mil last month in a special session. (To clarify, the cuts just given away apply to the next fiscal year, which starts in about four months.)
"Our analysis indicates ... More than half of the lower estimate ($117.2 million) is due to the impact of Special Session health savings accounts, tax deductions/credits for relocated businesses, and tax exclusion for new employees." From a letter from the Legislature's own Fiscal Bureau to the Legislature, Jan, 31, 2011 (http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lfb/Misc/2011_01_31Vos&Darling.pdf).
The benefit of the tax breaks can be debated, but it certainly is informative about the governor's policies, following those breaks with immediately wanting to cut the wages of workers.
A side note about the health account tax savings, this bill also transfers full control of Medicaid to the governor. Some assume he wants that power so he can fully de-fund it so it can't be part of the new health care system.
The governor also says they plan to save $165 million just by restructuring debt, which also bears on just how much of a budget crisis this is. AP story on Fox6News (http://www.fox6now.com/news/politics/witi-20110213-walker-budget,0,6978016.story).
The bill was announced four days before its first public hearing.
State workers have already given 16 unpaid furlough days (same AP Fox6News story).
There's no denying that teachers using sick days to go protest is bad for the kids. I'm not sure how else they get their protests felt, but it is another piece of this not being the ideal battle.
The governor, when asked about using the National Guard in the event of a strike, said he would use them to help keep things running. He has not threatened to use the National Guard against protesters.
Public unions have little correlation with budget problems. Some states have public unions and are doing relatively well (Washington, Utah), some don't have unions yet have big budget problems (Texas).
The part of the bill in conflict is the part about denying collective bargaining. That part doesn't save anything in the short term.
It denies collective bargaining for anything but the base wage, but also says wages can't go up other than for inflation, so the only thing they could bargain for is to go down. In effect it means no collective bargaining.
It also makes collection of union dues strictly voluntary, which means workers could enjoy the benefit of a union wage without supporting the union that got them that wage. Much like making phone bills voluntary would do to a phone company, it's a way to ensure its demise. (AP Fox6News story).
It also extends the same bans to all county, city and local governments. A town that wants to allow their employees to bargain collectively is not allowed to.
Unions rules can be a pain, or inefficient, or protect teachers who should be replaced. Solution? Renegotiate those parts.
Both sides, in public and private unions, across the nation and industries, blew it in negotiating and in accepting contracts that have fixed promises that can't always be kept. Fixed promises, for instance pension rates that would require a certain rate of return on pension investments, need escape clauses when the promises are simply impossible to keep. Not loopholes that make it easy to abandon promises, but some flexibility to adapt to unforeseen conditions.
Public unions are especially criticized by some, but public employees can be underpaid, too. The rate of pay for public employees is not the source of our current economic problem. Comparing typical private sector wages to typical civil servant wages is comparing apples and oranges. Civil servants are on average higher-level workers. Some studies show that particularly the highest-level civil servants could do better in the private sector (http://www.epi.org/economic_snapshots/entry/wisconsin_public_servants_already_face_a_compensation_penalty/).
Even where they are paid somewhat more, is that because they are paid too much, or because the pay of private employees is falling below a reasonable wage?
There certainly are abuses, as we've recently seen with unreasonable wages in a city in California, and some double-dipping in pensions. Those abuses should be ended. That doesn't affect the bulk of public workers.
Democratic legislators fleeing the state is bad form. Another part of this being an imperfect battle. If the governor and enough legislators have the votes, they have the right to change laws.
The unions had agreed to a number of concessions last year in contract negotiations but the contract was rejected by the Republican Legislature. They have reiterated those concessions and more, agreeing to all the wage and benefit concessions the governor is asking for but wanting to keep the collective bargaining right. The state senate leader has rejected that (Wisoncsin BixTimes.com http://www.reddit.com/tb/foyjh).
Collective bargaining by this public union is hardly the same as, say, the sometimes coercive collective bargaining of auto-workers out on strike in the past. This union has no legal right to strike (National Review - http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/259924/facing-down-unions-katrina-trinko).
There may be informal walkouts but the union can't ask members to strike or hold a vote on it, or threaten it in negotiations. And they have no recourse to binding arbitration. In many private-sector union scenarios if the union can't get an offer they can accept they can go to a third party arbitrator who finds a reasonable middle ground. Not so for this public union.
Basically they have very little leverage, and collective bargaining is mostly for the sake of having some designated party to represent workers in asking for what they can get.
Tom Cantlon is a longtime local resident, business owner and writer. Contact him at TomCantlon@TomCantlon.com.