Saturday, Apr 16, 2011, 6:30 am
Wisconsin’s Scott Walker: ‘Truly Progressive’ Gov. With a ‘Modest Request
When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took his show on the road to Washington, D.C. Thursday for offer insights on "good government" at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee, he showed his underappreciated imagination in describing his "very modest proposal" for public employees.
Eventually, Gov. Walker was pelted with a set of hostile questions and searing comments, but he reacted impassively. After all, what do mere congressmen and women matter when you have the Koch brothers, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation backing you up?
Gov. Walker, however, may have accidentally created the impression that his anti-public union law is in full effect and its beneficial effects are spreading across the state. In fact, its enforcement is under a restraining order because of Republican violations of the state's Open Meetings law. Because of litigation, it may take months before the status of the bill is resolved.
But this unpleasantness fails to cloud Walker's spirits. In offering his bold vision of the new Wisconsin to Congress, he used a descriptor not usually associated with revoking longstanding rights: "truly progressive."
"In Wisconsin, we are doing something truly progressive," he proudly declared, referring to a bill would limit unions to bargaining on wages only, limit pay increases to no more than the rate of inflation, restrict contracts to one year, end dues checkoff and require annual re-certification of the unions—all ensuring that union activism would be close to futile.
Gov. Walker even managed to look entirely sincere as he referred to depriving nearly 200,000 workers of their right to union representation. Undoubtedly, the legendary Wisconsin Progressive Party leader "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, who did so much to limit corporate power and establish rights for workers and farmers in the early part of the 20th century, agrees with Gov. Walker's bold assertion.
WALKER: THE MISUNDERSTOOD GOVERNOR
Walker suggested that his call for effectively knee-capping unions had been misunderstood as a fundamental breach of the social compact between Wisconsin and its citizens.
For example, some folks may have misunderstood Walker's demand that the legislature pass the bill within three business days because of the state's budgetary shortfall of $137 million he projected for June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
This misunderstanding was heightened by irrelevant publicity about $140 million in tax breaks to corporations and wealthy users of health savings accounts for which Walker had fought. Adding to the confusion about the budget "crisis" and the need to end collective bargaining in the public sphere was a report from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau projecting a $121 million surplus by the end of the fiscal year.
Further, Walker's threat to call out the National Guard against rebellious state employees may have created an exaggerated impression of the very minimal changes he sought. As Gov. Walker put it,"While our idea may be a bold political move, it is a very modest request of our employees."
The "very modest request" included further employee payments for medical and pension benefits, of which public employees already pay 100%, since they traded away immediate wage increases to obtain them. Although the major public unions quickly voted to surrender about 8% of their pay, the unions had the temerity to demand that in exchange, their members be allowed to retain their right to union representation.
WHY BARGAIN WHEN YOU HAVE NOTHING TO GIVE?
Gov. Walker's unwillingness to buckle under to the big bad labor bosses obviously confused much of the public, which failed to see that union representation is the direct cause of the state's budgetary problems. (Strangely, though, a number of states like Texas which forbid public collective bargaining have managed to find themselves in extremely deep budgetary holes that make Wisconsin's potential deficit look downright microscopic.)
The Democratic members of the Oversight Committee also failed to grasp Gov. Walker's urgent budget-cutting fervor needed, he said, because "investors want stability." Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) bugged Gov. Walker about trivial matters that had no fiscal impact on the state (video here):
BRALEY: How much money does requiring an annual vote for union representation save the state of Wisconsin?
WALKER: “That particular part doesn’t save any.”
BRALEY: How much does prohibiting employees from paying union dues from paychecks save the state of Wisconsin?
WALKER: It would save employees up to $1,000 per year they could use to pay for pensions and healthcare contribution....It’s to give workers a right. It’s to give workers the right to choose.
Liberal bloggers pounced on Gov. Walker's so-called "admission" that these stringent rules, which would interfere in the ability of unions to function, would save the state no money at all.
But state employees would gain something priceless: "the right to choose." —just so long as they didn't make the wrong choice and demand union representation from a union not confined by Walker's rules.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) took Gov. Walker to task for refusing to meet with union leaders. Gov. Walker had answered that question dozens of times. The unions could agree to take pay cuts, but unless they agreed to stop existing, what was the point of meeting with them? "We are broke, there is nothing to negotiate."
But fortunately Gov. Walker did manage to locate $200 million he could provide in tax breaks in the 2012-13 budget in order to reassure corporations and investors that Wisconsin is truly "open for business."
WALKER BROKE NO PROMISE—HE JUST DIDN'T DISCLOSE HIS PLAN
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) hassled Walker about never mentioning his plan to eradicate public unions on the campaign trail. Walker was asked if he ever specifically mentioned it and he replied "No."
I don't quite get the big deal. It wasn't like he broke a campaign promise. It was more like adding a promise after the election—you know, like a bonus—and then doing his best to keep it.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) was particulary nasty (video here). While claiming to be a friend of Walker and his family from their days together in the Wisconsin Legislature, she sure didn't show it. "I don't believe your figures that Wisconsin is facing a $3.6 billion structural deficit," said Moore. "That's just the difference between what these agencies requested and your very austere budget."
Moore went on to whine about nearly $1 billion cut from education, ending Medicaid coverage for dialysis, spending $410 million on highways (while turning down $810 million federal funding for high-speed rail) and costing the state $46 million in mass transit funding because federal law requires that mass-transit workers be allowed to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.
But if Wisconsin is going to accomplish its goal of being "Open for Business," there will be some collateral damage.
Of course, Gov. Walker took all the pesky carping in stride. After all, when you're trying to move your state in a "truly progressive" direction, there will always be people making a fuss even over a "very modest request."
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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.
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