What's the matter with Wisconsin?

Our view: What's happening in Madison has little to do with balancing budgets and everything to do with busting public sector unions

February 21, 2011

Wisconsin's public employee unions are doing a lousy job of being villains. They're willing to have their salaries and benefits cut 8 percent as Gov. Scott Walker has sought, and they're not asking for much in return — just to maintain the right to collective bargaining.

Yet Madison is now facing a second week of protests over the collective-bargaining power issue because it appears Wisconsin's Republican governor is more interested in busting the unions than balancing his budget. That's caused Democrats in the state Senate to leave Wisconsin so the chamber can't achieve the quorum needed to pass the plan.

It's a messy business and an unlikely ground zero for a showdown over state government finances and collective bargaining. Wisconsin's budget shortfall would no doubt be the envy of Sacramento or Albany; it's fiscal woes not nearly as bad as many of its Midwestern neighbors.

There are any number of people to blame for the economic mess still plaguing state capitols. Pension benefits were allowed to rise but were not fully funded, an imbalance aggravated by the falling stock market. State budgets grew when the economy prospered, but governments were ill-equipped for the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.

But the stalemate in Wisconsin is driven mostly by Governor Walker, who won't take yes for an answer unless it means wiping out the right of public employees to have meaningful union representation. Even a cursory review of what the governor wants — an end to union dues and annual votes to maintain union certification — reveals an agenda that has little to do with balancing the state's budget this year.

What Mr. Walker and other, mostly Republican, governors hate about public sector unions is that they tend to support Democrats. They resent the portion of union dues that go to funding political activities and thwarting the conservative agenda. And the public sector is one of the few places where unions are thriving.

Collective bargaining isn't bankrupting states. Governors and legislatures still decide how and where taxpayer dollars are spent, even in those states with the most liberal collective bargaining laws. Unions are simply advocates — much as large corporations and the wealthy have ample representation lobbying on their behalf in state capitols.

In Maryland, elected leaders have made progress in balancing budgets without demonizing unions. In one of the most successful, Baltimore County, officials sat down and bargained with unions to reduce pension and salary obligations without great acrimony. Nobody had to rewrite the rules to do it. Similarly, Gov. Martin O'Malley has been steadfast in his support for unions and has backed legislation that strengthens them. But he has also been willing to furlough state workers when necessary to balance the budget — and this year he is proposing reforms to pensions and retiree health benefits that will have union members contributing more and collecting less. Giving state workers a seat at the table and making necessary decisions to safeguard a state's future aren't mutually exclusive.

Why deny public sector employees the right to a voice in government decision-making? Wisconsin's governor talks only in vague generalities about how the state's future finances require it. But other states are making needed cutbacks without dismantling collective bargaining, and Wisconsin's unions have shown a willingness to sacrifice.

The right to be heard — and to leverage one's voice through a union — is a basic American right. Public employees should not be denied that right simply because they draw a paycheck from the government or because their political views don't match Mr. Walker's. (Interestingly, police and firefighters, who tend to be more conservative than other public sector employees, are exempt from the governor's plan.)

President Barack Obama has described the Wisconsin showdown as an "assault on unions." It defies logic to describe it as anything else.

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