I was going to entitle this post “It’s not about money, it’s about respect”, but then I realized: in our culture, it largely is about the money. How much we pay people to do their jobs is a pretty good indication of how much respect we have for them and for their work, regardless of whatever lip-service may also be paid. But let’s put aside the issue of money for the moment. We can all agree, I think, that the State has to put its financial house in order, and we can also all agree that at least temporary pay cuts are necessary. Personally, I don’t think that targeted tax increases should be off the table, but let’s agree for the sake of discussion that no tax increases are feasible in the present political and economic climate. Let’s even agree, for the sake of argument, that government workers should shoulder ALL of the burden of balancing the budget. None of that entails that such workers should be stripped of their well-established right to collectively bargain! But, in addition to targeting the wages of public employees (to the tune, it appears, of at least a 10% cut in take-home pay), the newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker wants to do just that. According to the Oshkosh Northwestern-
Walker wants to remove all collective bargaining rights, except for salary, for roughly 175,000 public employees starting July 1. Any requests for a salary increase higher than the consumer price index would have to be approved by referendum.
Starting April 1, Walker wants to force state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover pension costs and more than double their health insurance contributions. That would generate $30 million this fiscal year. Currently, most public workers don’t contribute anything to their pensions.
Walker said Friday that he updated emergency plans and alerted the National Guard just in case they are needed to ensure state services aren’t interrupted. His plan would remove collective bargaining rights for prison guards, but it would exempt local police and firefighters and the state patrol.
Walker spoke about his plan at a Capitol news conference under the watch of a heavier than usual police presence. Walker, standing in front of seven state representatives and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, said no one should be surprised by his proposal.
“Unless you were in a coma for the last two years, it was clear where I was headed,” Walker said.
Well, most government employees I know – who have already accepted pay cut after pay cut, most recently disguised in the form of “furlough days” that, in the case of university faculty and staff, can’t affect their teaching duties – weren’t in a coma for the last two years, but these anti-union proposals have certainly awoken them to the consequences of allowing this governor to be elected. Governor Walker even wants to rescind the law, passed only last year, that allows university faculty and staff to determine for themselves whether they want to unionize. Not to actually unionize, mind you, but simply to vote on the issue. What liberty could be more American than that?
Walker says he wants public employees to be in circumstances that are more similar to those of private employees. But which private employees: those that are paid fairly, or those that aren’t? For decades, government workers have been willing to accept lower wages than those they would expect to earn in the private sector, in return for better benefits (such as employer-funded pensions and medical coverage). So it is misleading at best to say that mandating pension and health insurance contributions simply increases the parity between public and private workers. But even if this were true, accepting less monetary compensation would not be nearly as damaging to state employees (and to those they serve) if they were allowed to continue negotiating the non-monetary conditions of their employment, as teachers, nurses, and public defenders now do regarding issues like class size, patient load, and case load. If you or someone you know is an actual or potential student, patient, or defendant – in other words, if you are alive – then you should want those closest to the classroom, hospital room, or court room – the employees themselves – to have some say in the conditions of those workplaces.
It’s interesting that, although the governor’s tea-party ideology is all about personal liberty, he’s perfectly happy to the restrict the liberty of state employees to unionize and collectively bargain (bargain, not dictate) the terms of their employment. And, in the case of university faculty and staff, he’s delighted to simply prohibit them from unionizing altogether. Respect is all about recognizing rights, and the right of workers to collectively bargain in an economy where power (and money) tends to be distributed upward (that is, away from the people who actually do the productive work) is crucial to maintaining some semblance of economic justice.
On a final, unfortunately cynical note, can it be mere coincidence that the two unions that Governor Walker exempted from his plan – police and fire – just happen to be the two that supported his election?
Stay tuned, this story is likely to be with us for quite a while.