Will Wisconsin Protests Come to California?

Feb. 18, 2011


Today Wisconsin, tomorrow California? The battle between government-employee unions and state budgets was inevitable once the unions were given collective bargaining rights over the past 50 years.

The battle boiled over the past few days in Wisconsin as Republicans in the Legislature are attempting to repeal the state’s collective bargaining law for public-employee unions, along with requiring state workers to pay half their pension costs. As in California and most other states, the actions are prompted by declining budget revenues during the Great Recession and escalating public-employee pension and wage costs.

A vote on the matter has been boycotted by Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate. Republican Gov. Scott Walker even has ordered state troopers to track down senators who are avoiding the vote, prompting some senators to flee the Badger State. At least one Democrat is required to be present for a vote on the bill.

Union members have swarmed around the state capitol in Madison for “week of rage” protests against the proposed actions. The protests also are spreading to Ohio and other Midwestern states where last November Tea Party activists helped put in power reform-minded Republicans.

Collective bargaining is a key issue because it gives unions immense clout in negotiating with state and local governments. Unions and government employees insist that it is their right to organize and present a united front to the government.

The catch, though, is that they are the government. Collective bargaining in the private sector means that labor sits one side of the table and management, such as at GM or Ford, sits on the other side. That’s different from government, where the unions sit on the labor side of the table — but also, by electing pliant politicians to power in state houses, city councils and school boards, sits on the management side.

This was graphically illustrated last fall by the statement of a union leader. “This is our opportunity to elect our own bosses,” California School Employees Association Chapter 224 head Ronda Walen said about a said of an election concerning the San Juan Capistrano Unified School District. That means the unions — not the taxpayers — get to decide union pay, perks and pensions. No wonder California has a $25 billion budget deficit and effectively is bankrupt.

Obama involved

Despite this being a state matter, not a federal one, President Obama has butted in by backing the unions. Reported the Washington Post:

Obama accused Scott Walker, the state’s new Republican governor, of unleashing an “assault” on unions in pushing emergency legislation that would change future collective-bargaining agreements that affect most public employees, including teachers.

The president’s political machine worked in close coordination Thursday with state and national union officials to get thousands of protesters to gather in Madison and to plan similar demonstrations in other state capitals.

The national Democratic Party also is getting involved:

The Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America arm — the remnant of the 2008 Obama campaign — is playing an active role in organizing protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip most public employees of collective bargaining rights.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson also has joined the state employee protests:

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The Rev. Jesse Jackson has urged thousands of protesters in the Wisconsin Capitol to continue their stand against a sweeping anti-union bill that state Republicans are pushing.

Jackson made an unannounced appearance at the protests Friday afternoon. Protesters rushed to shake his hand or high-five him, and many shouted, “Thank you, Jesse.”

Jackson told the protesters they were fighting for a just cause. He told them to hold strong to their principles and continue fighting to kill the bill. Then he led the masses in a rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

Yet, many ordinary citizens having difficulty paying high state taxes may find it difficult sympathizing with Wisconsin teachers whose average pay and benefits total more than $100,000 a year.

Some union backers have compared the Wisconsin protests to those in Egypt against the departed Mubarak regime. But the protests there were against the Egyptian government and its repression and robbing of ordinary citizens. In Wisconsin, the protests are by government workers who are well paid.

Coming to California?

In California, collective bargaining — letting government-union members “elect their own bosses” — was allowed when the Dills Act was passed in in 1978 and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown during his first term in the office. Brown since has defended his action. And unions played a crucial role in his election in November.

Brown won’t repeal the unions’ collective bargaining rights, as his Republican counterparts are trying to do back East in the states of the plains and prairies. But he faces the same problem they do: Declining revenues and rising union-worker costs.

Gov. Brown’s solution to the state’s $25 billion budget deficit has been $13 billion in spending cuts and $12 billion in tax increases. Republicans in the state Senate and Assembly, barely more than a third of the members in each house, have so far remained stalwart in refusing to join the majority Democrats in putting a tax-increase measure on the ballot in June.

Even if the measure ends up going to an election, it may not be passed by voters. Voters vetoed a tax-increase ballot measure just last November, and another one in 2009.

Moreover, even if a tax increases passes, it might not fill the hole in the budget. After all, a tax increase of $13 billion in 2009 didn’t prevent the current budget deficit.

Within weeks or months, Gov. Brown well could have to face down the unions that elected him, maybe sparking protests in Sacramento. Due to the mistakes of the Legislatures of the past decade, and former governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state just spends too much for the taxpayers to bear.

During the Davis-Schwarzenegger years, the unions had a rollicking good time, especially getting their members’ pensions spiked.

Unions across America, roused by President Obama and rabble-rousers like Jesse Jackson,  just don’t get it that there’s no more money. Protest as they might, high union pay, perks and pensions are going to have to be cut. Then cut again. Then cut yet again.

John Seiler is an analyst and researcher for CalWatchDog.com. His email: [email protected].

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