Unions, Politics, and the Wisconsin Recall

In historic recall elections in Wisconsin this week, Republicans held on to their majority by a narrow margin, sending the message that unions everywhere are in danger.

Unions serve a vital purpose in our society, a purpose most people won’t appreciate until unions are gone. The blame for Wisconsin voters’ feelings of apathy and even antipathy toward unions falls on two camps:

1. The unions themselves

After more than a hundred years of sacrifice to make sure workers were treated fairly, unions became arrogant. In general, unions pushed the envelope, asking a little too much in their contracts. And that little bit of excess led to a lot of bad public relations.

Which leads to another union problem: lack of good PR. Unions created the eight-hour day and weekend, forced employers to pay a fair wage, equalized pay between the genders, and provided safer workplaces. Those deeds done, unions have kept a vigilant watch on workplace issues, becoming politically involved any time worker rights are threatened.

But can you think of one warm and fuzzy story about any of the unions in your town? Can you think of one way they help your community? Can you name a charismatic leader who proclaims a positive union message far and wide?

Probably not.

And now unions — and society — will pay the price.

2. The Republican Party

The role of politics is unmistakable. Gov. Scott Walker demanded that Wisconsin’s public unions contribute more toward pensions and health insurance to help balance the state budget. Let’s assume that he is correct, that Wisconsin will be in financial ruin without these concessions.

Why, then, did he include provisions that will essentially destroy public unions in Wisconsin? Why did he make it harder to pay union dues and take away the power of the unions so no one would see a reason to pay those dues? Why did he take away the unions’ right to negotiate issues like workplace safety? Will eliminating discussions about working conditions help to balance the state budget?

No. But it will chip away at the unions’ financial and political power, power that traditionally goes to Democrats.

Of the top 20 largest political donors nationwide, 12 are labor unions, 2 are big corporations, 5 are industry groups, and 1 is a Democratic PAC. These donors represent $654 million in campaign cash. And unions heavily support Democratic candidates:

Data source: OpenSecrets.org. Represents contributions from 1989 to 2010.

The union money is a hefty chunk of the total contributions:

Source: OpenSecrets.org

So in the end, Scott Walker’s union provisions are, indeed, about money. But not the kind of money that balances budgets. The kind of money that wins elections.

You’re Not Alone: Links for Moderates

Do you believe that both political parties are spending more time vying for power than working to improve our country? Are you bothered by heightened rhetoric where opposing viewpoints and candidates are “evil” or “anti-American”? Do you share views held by both parties? If so, you’re not alone. Below are some blog posts and news stories that might appeal to you.

Here’s a Washington Post article explaining how both parties use the debt ceiling issue for political gain:

Five Myths About the Debt Ceiling

Thomas Friedman looks at the latest — and possibly strongest — attempt at establishing a competitive third party:

Make Way for the Radical Center

Well-known linguist Deborah Tannen takes on the semantics of partisanship and discovers that seeing political opponents as enemies is “dangerous to our democracy”:

Why is ‘compromise’ now a dirty word?

Advice to parents about indoctrinating kids by an author who inadvertently started to do so:

Conservatives vs. liberals: Before you indoctrinate your kids, read this

A new group called “No Labels” calls for people to shun political labels and deal with issues in a civil manner. Its slogan? “Not left. Not right. Forward.”

No Labels website

A CNN essay about how both parties lack courage:

Bygone patriots and the end of political courage

Fareed Zakaria explores how the political rift is caused in part by a new brand of conservatism:

How Today’s Conservatism Lost Touch with Reality

Forbes magazine sounds a death knell for the entitlement-based Democratic party:

Why The Democratic Party Is Doomed

This blogger explains why Democrats are failing to compete with the Republicans’ succinct talking points:

Democrats and the Social Security Messaging Fail

Sen. John McCain demonstrates a higher level of discourse in this Washington Post article praising his political rival, President Obama, for a speech related to the Arizona shootings in January 2011:

After the shootings, Obama reminds the nation of the Golden Rule

A good quote from a press release that shows some politicians have views that cross party lines with regard to issues like gay marriage:

NY State GOP Senator Roy McDonald Is In Favor Of Gay Marriage

In this video clip, Juan Williams explains the context of the controversial remarks that got him fired and explains the need for debate without vilifying opponents.

Juan Williams interview on The Daily Show

Commentary from Time magazine on the effect of polarizing politics on news networks:

Can a mainstream outlet survive?

A collection of older New York Times articles about bipartisanship:


Sex and Lies: Why Weiner Had To Resign

Even Anthony Weiner’s resignation prompted media scrutiny: Did he have to resign? After all, he hadn’t broken a law. And polls showed that most of his constituents wanted him to continue to represent them.

It seemed like another case of hype: the media discovered a salacious scandal, played it up as the most important story in the country (see chart below), and forced prominent Dems like Nancy Pelosi and President Obama to call for Weiner’s resignation so they didn’t look like they were soft on unethical behavior.

But sexting isn’t what brought Weiner down. Lying and blaming: the public has a harder time forgiving those misdeeds. When voters discovered the truth behind Bill Clinton’s infamous denial – “I did not have sex with that woman” – they lost faith.

However, on some level, people relate to lies. We’ve all done something we’re not proud of and then lied about it – maybe not something as incredibly stupid as sexting to strangers while in public office, but we understand his motivation.

Still, the lie compounded Weiner’s character flaw. Then he took the next step: blaming someone else, a nameless hacker.

He should have realized his behavior would be found out – easily, in fact. Adding another level to the lie shows lack of responsibility for his actions and possibly an inability to control those actions. Compulsive behavior could affect the important job he was elected to do. That’s why he had to quit public office, at least for now.

Percentage of weekly newshole spent on stories the week of June 6-12, as calculated by the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism

Citizens pay for costly political games

Wisconsin politicians suffer from amnesia. Their malady is costing taxpayers millions of dollars as members of both parties forget the consequences of raiding public funds.

In 1987 Republican Governor Tommy Thompson raided $230 million from the Wisconsin Retirement System to balance the budget. The Wisconsin Education Association Council and other organizations filed a lawsuit, claiming the raid was illegal. Eight years and lots of legal wrangling later, the state lost the case and had to pay back the money plus legal fees.

Attorneys don’t come cheap. And the money didn’t come out of the politicians’ pockets.

Apparently the Democrats thought they could get away with a similar raid because in 2007 and 2008, Governor Jim Doyle took about $200 million from the state’s Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund. This is a fund that doctors are required to contribute to in addition to paying their malpractice insurance premiums. It compensates malpractice victims when a doctor’s insurance coverage isn’t adequate.

The Wisconsin State Medical Society hired the same law firm that the other organizations hired in 1987 and took the dispute to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In the summer of 2010, the court ruled that the state has to pay back the money plus interest and legal fees.

Now Republican Governor Scott Walker’s new budget bill proposes taking money from the Public Employee Trust Fund and using it to pay health insurance bills.

Yet when the resolution of the lawsuit against Doyle’s raid was announced, Walker – then a gubernatorial candidate – released the following statement:

“The raids enacted by Governor Doyle are inexcusable and have wreaked havoc on our state budget, and now the taxpayers are yet again on the hook for his misguided policies. As governor, I’ll find ways to do more with less to fill the $2.5 billion gap created by Governor Doyle, and support an amendment that will protect funds like these from future raids.”

How quickly they forget.

Scott Walker’s statement from his campaign site:

The reference to the transfer from the trust fund in Walker’s current bill is on p. 125:

Summary of the medical society lawsuit:

The actual Supreme Court decision:

The lawsuit filed by the WEAC and other groups regarding Thompson’s retirement system raid: