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:


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:


I want my party back

Today a guest blogger, Marc Seals, offers another perspective on politics and the turmoil in Wisconsin:

After nearly two decades of being a Republican, I must face the reality that my party has abandoned me.

In the early 1990s, I became a registered Republican. I was a public school English teacher in Georgia who felt betrayed by the leftward shift of the Democratic Party; it seemed that there was no longer room for moderate or conservative Democrats. I took the call for the Republican Party to be a “big tent” at face value and jumped ship.

I was strongly opposed to the idea of teachers being unionized. Unions were for blue-collar workers, I thought. Unions create an antagonistic relationship between employees and management, I thought. In fact, I was the campus representative for two non-union teachers associations– the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and the Professional Educators’ Network (in Florida). These organization existed to provide an alternative to the teachers’ unions; even so, I never heard anyone within those organizations say that the unions did not have a fundamental right to exist.

Even when I returned to graduate school, I stuck by my conservative principles. This was rather lonely at times, I will confess, but I believe that education should not be a partisan issue. I have never voted straight party line, because I agree with the Clinton-era Republican mantra that “character counts.” Nevertheless, I have voted for far more Republicans than Democrats over the last two decades.

I finally earned my PhD in 2004 (after ten years of college), and I moved to Wisconsin to take a position on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County. The pay here was quite a bit lower than in other Midwestern states, but the benefits package helped make up for that. We were paid less because the benefits were more generous. I fell in love with Wisconsin and the Baraboo community. I have become a die-hard Packers fan. I root for the Badgers (unless they are playing my alma mater). I have endured the coldest weather in decades (2006) and the snowiest winter on record (2007) with my smile intact. In short, I have made this my home.

Every year that I have lived here, we have not received even a cost of living increase; we accepted this because we were told that it was the only way that we could keep our benefits package. When the economy sunk into recession, we had a legislatively approved raise taken away and replaced by furloughs that amounted to a 3% cut in pay. We have endured this pay cut for each of the last two years. When people ask what I make as a professor, I ask them what they think I make– they usually guess a sum that is at least twice my salary. In addition, we accepted larger class sizes (and thus a larger grading burden) to help the state balance the budget.

Now the governor says that it is time that state employees pay their share. After years of flat salaries and even pay cuts, to hear that we have not sacrificed is insulting and disingenuous. I teach 100 students a semester in classes in American literature, film, and composition. I am the faculty sponsor of the Navigators Christian Fellowship, the faculty sponsor of the UW-BSC Disc Golf Club, and the Director of the Honors Program. I work about sixty hours a week (because that is how long it takes to do my job well). In short, I work hard and (I think) do a good job (as may be evidenced by the fact that three times in four years, the students have selected me as “faculty member of the year”).

The so-called Budget Repair Bill will represent a reduction in my take-home pay of somewhere between 8 and 13 percent, depending upon whose figures you believe. A cut like this will be devastating to my family. I fear that we will need to sell our home. We may even need to seek employment elsewhere. This prospect would break my heart, because I really do love it here. Governor Walker has said that we are the “haves.” A comment to a recent Baraboo News Republic letter to the editor suggested that all the professors drove Jaguars and Mercedes. No one on our campus drives anything like that. (I, for the record, drive a 2003 Honda with a check-engine light that has been on for six years, a broken door lock, and a malfunctioning interior light.)

Even so, I find it most distressing that the bill takes away the right of workers to have collective bargaining. Wisconsin was the pioneer of workers’ rights 75 years ago; it is disheartening to watch this reversed. The United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (to which the United States is a signatory) asserts “that recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”; this declaration lists as one of its articles “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his [or her] interests.” The faculty at UW-BSC are not unionized. In fact, very few of the 26 institutions within the University of Wisconsin system have voted to unionize. This may very well be because we wanted to avoid an antagonistic stance toward administration and the legislature. That antagonism is, sadly, now a foregone conclusion.

I will not revisit in any detail the arguments that show the absurdity of Governor Walker’s arguments. It has been well-documented that Governor Walker is misrepresenting the fiscal crisis for political gain; regardless, he has clearly overplayed his hand. A poll released this week shows that the majority of Wisconsinites agree. Governor Walker does not seem concerned, insisting that he is backed by a “quiet majority.” If he valued education enough to listen, I could teach him about the Greek concept of hubris—excessive pride or self-confidence to the point of dismissive arrogance. Hubris was the downfall of many Greek heroes, and it will likely prove to be Governor Walker’s downfall as well.

The recording of the prank phone call released Wednesday demonstrates that the governor is willing to engage in dirty political tricks, duping Democratic senators into returning to Madison. Even more damaging was the confession that he considered planting troublemakers in amongst the peaceful demonstrators. Finally, he agreed to accept an illegal trip to California. If this administration is what the Republican Party has become, then I must wonder where that leaves me. I know where it leaves Walker– poised to hand the state back to the Democrats in the next election cycle and become a footnote in state history.

Personally, I pray that Governor Walker listens to the voters and sits down with the opposition to negotiate. Regardless, I want him to know one thing—I want my party back.