The showdown in Madison represents a tipping point in national politics.
The clash between the state’s teachers union and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker raged on through the weekend, with both sides digging in their heels. Madison has become the symbolic focal point of a national conflict between conservatives who want to reduce the size and expense of government and leftists who want to retain all of the tools necessary to continue the expansion of big government into the future. Thus, Wisconsin’s capital increasingly seems be turning into America’s ideological battleground, as troops and leaders from both sides pour into the city. The longer it goes on, the more is at stake for taxpayers and government employees throughout America.
There is poetic justice in the fact that this debate is taking place in the middle of Wisconsin. The Dairy State is the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the nation’s most powerful government employee unions, and it was in Madison that government employees first won collective bargaining rights back in 1959.
The state’s AWOL Democratic state senators remain in hiding at an undisclosed location in Illinois, effectively preventing a vote on Walker’s budget reform bill. They’ve told the media that they want the governor to negotiate with the union, and fleeing the state is the only card they have to play in order to make that happen. Walker is adamant that he will not enter in negotiations over the bill, even though the union now says that it will agree to the financial aspects of the proposal. “We are willing to take this as long as it takes,” Walker told Fox News Sunday. “We are doing the right thing. My hope is that cooler minds will prevail. Democracy is not about hiding out in other states.”
Pro-Walker demonstrators hit the streets of Madison this weekend, led by the Tea Party activists who understand the national importance of this debate. “Sorry we took so long Scott – we have jobs,” read one sign carried by a supporter. Local media described the size of the pro-Walker crowd as substantial, but much smaller than the pro-union forces. Hundreds of police kept the two sides separate and although there was much shouting and debate among competing protesters, no violent incidents were reported. National leaders and media personalities continued to flock into Madison to show support for their favored side. For smaller-government advocates, winning the Battle of Wisconsin could very well represent the tipping point that results in a cascade of similar dominoes in legislatures throughout America. It would be an important step on the road to restoring fiscal sanity, in other words. For government-employee unions, and for the Democratic Party they invariably support, that very real possibility is dangerous indeed. It’s not surprising that the rhetoric went far beyond what would be expected of a budget issue being debated in a medium sized Midwestern state.
"Go out in the street, all you have to do is look out there," national AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka told demonstrators. "People are tired. People are fed up. People are saying, 'Enough is enough.' You're beyond the limit of what's decent. If you want to negotiate, we'll help you. This is all about union-busting."
“This is history,” Andrew Breitbart declared in a speech to the pro-Walker faction. “We are going to let the American people know, in every single state, that we have every governor and every legislator’s back. We are the modern-day peace movement. This is the peace movement.” He pointed across the square to where union supporters marched and concluded: “that is where the anarchists are.”
The longer that this battle continues, the more significant it will becomes to everyone in America. Clearly, this is not simply about reigning in government spending and deficits, although that aspect of the debate certainly looms large, particularly on the right. With the notable exception of Illinois, most states facing budget crises understand that they have to find spending reductions, because taxpayers simply are not going to put up with giving away any more of their paychecks in today’s economic climate. The larger question is a philosophical one: do public sector workers have the “right” to bargain collectively?
Unions originally came into being as a way of balancing two competing interests in the private sector. The UAW provided a counter-weight to GM, and although that particular balancing act got substantially out of kilter as time went on, there was at least a free-market basis for that kind of relationship. Public sector unions are another beast, because they’re not negotiating with management that is bound by the rules of competition and the profit motive. Rather, public sector unions deal with elected officials who, far too often, believe that they have access to almost limitless pools of money.
Moreover, few legislators have had the courage to say “no” to even the most outrageous demands of public sector unions. This is especially true in the case of occupations that the public has a special sympathy for. For example, everyone appreciates the risks that firefighters take and the vital job that they do. However, firefighters unions throughout the nation understand the esteem that the public has for firefighters, and they don’t hesitate to take advantage of those feelings in state capitals across the country. In some states, firefighters have the right to be elected to govern the municipalities that employ them, or to decide which of their fellow firefighters are eligible to receive lifetime disability payments, for example. These sorts of blatant conflicts of interests would be unthinkable in terms of your typical public-works laborer, but are common in the public sector when it comes to jobs like teacher, police officer and firefighter. Anyone who points out that fact is quickly labeled “anti-education,” “anti-cop” and “anti-firefighter” by union apologists, and elected officials are well aware of the dangers of saying “no” those particular unions.
Accordingly, it’s not just the Wisconsin teachers union that can’t suffer any roll-back of collective bargaining rights, it's teachers unions across the country, along with their counterparts representing firefighters and police officers. A victory over the unions in the Dairy State will change the playing field, and embolden more state legislatures to aggressively roll-back the monopoly of power government employee unions possess. Wisconsin has long been proud of its “progressive” history, a term that has sadly been corrupted in modern times. And yet, if Scott Walker can pull this off, Wisconsin will truly be making progress in reforming the way that states are governed and how they spend their money.