In a year when governors across the country are competing to show who’s toughest, no matter what the consequences, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin stands out as the first to bring his State Capitol to a halt.
Like many governors, he wants to cut the benefits of state workers. But he also decided a budget crisis was a good time to advance an ideological goal dear to his fellow Republicans: eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Not surprisingly, thousands of workers descended on the Capitol building, pounding on windows and blocking doors, yelling “shut it down.” So many teachers called in sick that public schools in Madison and more than a dozen other districts had to be closed. On Thursday, the Democrats in the State Senate refused to show up, vowing to prevent any action until the governor drops his plan. The state police were sent to find them.
Mr. Walker has decried the chaos, but it was entirely self-inflicted. His plan to undermine the unions, which would have no direct impact on the budget, would take away nearly all of their rights to negotiate.
They would be barred from bargaining about anything except wages, and any pay increase they win would be limited by the consumer price index. Contracts would be limited to a year, and union dues could no longer be deducted from paychecks. As President Obama correctly put it on Wednesday, that “seems like an assault on unions.” (The archbishop of Milwaukee and players for the Green Bay Packers have also come out in support of the workers.)
Benefits for Wisconsin’s state workers are currently quite generous, but they weren’t stolen. They were negotiated by elected officials and can be re-negotiated at the bargaining table if necessary.
Most pay only 6 percent of their health care premium costs and Governor Walker wants to double that. The average employee contribution to premiums around the country, public and private, is 29 percent. Most state workers contribute almost nothing to their pensions; he wants them to pay 5.8 percent, which is a little less than average for government workers around the country.
Meanwhile, the governor is refusing to accept his own share of responsibility for the state’s projected $137 million shortfall. Just last month, he and the Legislature gave away $117 million in tax breaks, mostly for businesses that expand and for private health savings accounts. That was a choice lawmakers made, and had it not been for those decisions and a few others, according to the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state would have had a surplus.
Wisconsin is certainly not as bad off as California, Illinois, and several northeastern states that are making tough budgetary decisions without trying to eliminate union rights. Nonetheless, the union-busting movement is picking up steam, with lawmakers in Ohio, Indiana, and several other states. On Thursday in Washington, John Boehner, the speaker of the House, weighed in on Mr. Walker’s side.
Keeping schools closed and blocking certain public services is not a strategy we support and could alienate public opinion and play into the governor’s hand. Short of that, the unions should make their voices heard and push back hard against this misguided plan.