The Inevitable Wisconsin

by Hans Moleman

In the words of Young Frankenstein’s Inspector Kemp, “A riot iss an ogly think.”  So is the Wisconsin shootout; ugly – but inevitable.

The unions had to be expecting a tough time with their new Governor Walker. No doubt they anticipated a difficult negotiation – “hard bargaining”, as the governor cut labor costs to balance the budget.  Instead, they found themselves facing political forces who actually intend to put an end to them.

Unions have always decried every effort to rollback labor costs or union power as “union-busting.” Now their past rhetorical excesses have caught up with them, as they confront the real thing.  (Cf “Wolf, the Boy who Cried…”)

At first it looked as if Walker was indeed bargaining hard.  Rolling back pensions, increasing employee contributions, and making labor accept it as a compromise by agreeing not to end collective bargaining outright.  And there would be the peace, as Don Barzini would say.

Well, gentlemen may cry “peace, peace,” but there is no peace.  Before it could be seen if Walker was a “let’s make a deal” type, Democrats abandoned the state and the unions seized the Capitol to bully the governor and Republicans. They in turn found a parliamentary bypass and passed the bill to strip bargaining rights. The budget, with its real benefit reductions and budget cuts is still pending.  But the unions appear to have used up most of their ammo, so their hopes cannot be high.

The fight was foreordained, if not in Wisconsin then somewhere nearby.  Since the 1930’s, unions have struggled over their relation to politics, politicians, and especially political parties.  Early on it came down to a simple question: whether to seek friends in both parties, or to throw in wholeheartedly with the Democrats.

Samuel Gompers, the father of AFL “business unionism”, believed unions would ultimately lose by staking everything on the total victory of one party.  He saw friendly politicians mainly as insurance against government anti-unionism, as a way of keeping the government as neutral as possible in the battle between labor and capital.

The opposing view, coalescing into the CIO, was that unions had to marry themselves to Roosevelt and the New Deal party.  The leaders’ underlying liberal socialism made the Democrats their natural home. Ultimately, the private sector unions all went the CIO way.

When public sector unions came along in the 1960’s, they were at first hesitant to follow the CIO path.  Reasoning that local and state politicians would always include both D’s and R’s, they felt they needed to be on speaking terms with as many of each as possible.

But by the 1970’s, the lure of kingmaking proved irresistible.   Public sector unions increasingly transformed themselves into political machines.  And it worked well…for a while.

NEA, as the nation’s largest union, is a particularly good example of this progression.  In 1976, they broke with their century-long practice of non-endorsement, and went all out for Jimmy Carter.  The stated reason was his support for a Cabinet-level Department of Education; in reality, NEA was simply ready to start flexing its political muscle.

Since then, NEA has with every passing election become more a teacher-outreach arm of the party (see my NEA and the Party).  Of course, from its own standpoint, NEA drives the party.  Who’s really in charge, Democrats in the NEA, or NEA leaders in the party? It is a metaphysical question, and a moot one. 

A case in point is NEA’s new Executive Director John Stocks.  Coming from Wisconsin (of all places), Stocks is an expert, some would even say brilliant, political strategist.  Charming, creative, forceful – but above all, a party man, easily the most political leader NEA has ever had.

 Whether the party’s embrace or the union’s was the stronger, the result was the same.  And while there is some truth in the NEA party-line argument that Republican anti-unionism drove the unions away, it is hard to see how NEA’s choice of Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford was somehow defensive.  For the 70’s were a time when “better pay for teachers” had pretty broad bi-partisan support in more states than not.

Fast-forward to the Wisconsin statehouse.  NEA and the other public-sector unions, having committed themselves to the all-or-nothing, boom-or-bust political cycle, are facing a pretty decisive bust.  He who lives by the ballot box, dies by the ballot box.

And the outcome is as regrettable as it was avoidable. 

Pension benefits are the most immediate flashpoint, and for a reason.  Unions in the private sector created the pensions which, even more than Social Security, made comfortable retirement possible for workers.  In the public sector, pensions were creations of the civil service bureaucracy long before the unions came along; unions just encouraged the politicians to grow the benefits and not worry so much about the funding.  Private and public sector unions were on the same page, and the same problems arose with both.

Today’s private sector has found both unions and pensions to be something they can live without.  That leaves the public employees exposed.   Ed McElroy, longtime Secretary-Treasurer and President of the American Federation of Teachers, used to warn about public employees becoming “islands of privilege”, as private sector workers lost similar benefits.  Unless unions could organize in the private sector, these islands would eventually be engulfed.

The problem is that labor can’t figure out how to organize workers in private companies – that is, they can’t figure out how to win contested elections (ironic, no?)  The push for “card check” was an example of their desperation.  And they did about as well with that as bargainers usually do when they look desperate.

So the private sector unions have to figure out what kind of union would appeal to an underpaid, under-benefited Walmart worker (see my “Who Is Killing The Unions”).

The public sector unions have a different problem: they have to figure out how to fight for their members’ interests without becoming political lightning rods.

Two routes seem obvious.  They could figure out how to win every election with a pro-union Democrat (the present strategy).

Or they could deny themselves the delicious two-bites-of-the-apple power that comes with electing your own boss (an apple that is as hard to reject now as it was for Father Adam.) That is, they could agree to sit on only one side of the bargaining table, not both.

In other words, they could get out of the political game.

Because in that game, whether you are a pawn or a king doesn’t matter so much.  Sooner or later you get knocked off.

(Also see “NEA Past and Present”)

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