While millions of ordinary Americans have been struggling to cope with the harsh economic realities of the last two years, Republican elected officials have focused their attention on ways to take political advantage of widespread hardship. Republicans have decided that ongoing economic turmoil offers a perfect opportunity to go after their political opponents.
So, every Democratic proposal is a “job-killing” bill — even a measure to assure continuing medical treatment to 9/11 first responders was somehow a job killer. Our economy’s free fall was the result of “unreasonably high taxes” — never mind the high-flying Wall Street speculators who gambled with our housing market and lost. And, now, when state and local governments are trying desperately to rebuild their crumbling budgets, the Republican Party is ready to assign blame for the catastrophe: unions.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got the ball rolling by blaming that state’s budget shortfalls on overpaid state employees and their underfunded pensions. Let’s not forget that New Jersey has failed to make 13 of its last 17 scheduled payments to its pension trust fund, and the good Governor has missed every payment since taking office. Governor Christie is robbing the public employees’ bank account and then blaming those employees for not keeping enough in the safe.
Then, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin stepped up, insisting that Wisconsin’s budget deficit was caused by extravagant public employee compensation packages, driven by rapacious and irresponsible unions. But we know that public employee unions are not the cause of Wisconsin’s deficits. Compared to the rest of the country, Wisconsin provides its public employees only average salaries and benefits — its state employees make roughly 5% less than its private sector workers. And the pension system that Governor Walker says will sink the state? It’s very healthy and poses no looming threat to the state’s solvency.
But Wisconsin does have a deficit and, in a genuine effort to help overcome that shortfall, Wisconsin’s public employee unions agreed to Governor Walker’s proposed wage and benefit reductions. Not good enough for Governor Walker: he demanded that Wisconsin’s public employee unions relinquish their decades-old collective bargaining rights. Governor Walker’s goal is not to eliminate Wisconsin’s deficit; it is to eliminate Wisconsin’s public employee unions.
Eliminating collective bargaining doesn’t help state budgets or restore fiscal balance; rather, it punishes workers and invites abuse. Texas, a right-to-work state with a deficit 10 times that of Wisconsin, is a poster child for poor governance and fiscal ineptitude. But for Republicans like Governors Walker and Christie, strangling the public employee unions is a “twofer”: it weakens the bargaining power of labor, an important check and counterbalance to big business, and it shuts off a significant funding source to candidates, traditionally Democrats, who champion ordinary working families.
Using a crisis for political advantage is a risky game. Although the Republican Party successfully has capitalized on the economic turbulence created by the recession, in Wisconsin, it badly overplayed its hand. Governor Walker and his fellow Republicans underestimated Wisconsinites’ commitment to fairness and balance. They dismissed the sturdy common sense of the American people, who know when they’re being sold on something, and who are not buying the argument that treating workers fairly is bad for the economy. Indeed, a new Pew Center poll shows that support of the unions has increased since Governor Walker sought to cripple them, while his approval ratings have declined.
Is there a solution to the stalemate in Wisconsin? Recent indications that Governor Walker is modifying his demands is welcome news. All effective leaders must compromise, and Governor Walker has the good fortune to be facing state workers who already have affirmed their willingness to sacrifice to help Wisconsin remain a vibrant state. Now, after a month of passionate public outcry against his union-busting strategy, Governor Walker has an opportunity to demonstrate his ability to govern with reason and moderation. I urge him to seize it.
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