The Wisconsin state senate’s vote to curtain collective bargaining for public-sector employees could prove a major turning point in American labor relations and in making state and local government more responsive to the people they serve. At the very least, Gov. Scott Walker has rendered a tremendous public service by alerting all Americans to the sham that ensues in every state capital, through which politicians promise public-employee unions greater and greater benefits in exchange for labor’s undergirding “get out the vote” efforts. This “public be damned” sentiment (once voiced by private-sector “robber baron” Cornelius Vanderbilt) has all but become the unofficial motto of public-sector unions in every state. But, at long last, their “public” has been aroused, and it does not like being played for a fool by both the unions and their elected officials.
With the Democrats’ having overplayed their hand by absenting themselves in the hope that they could deprive their colleagues of a quorum, Walker’s forces were able to prevail on a matter of procedure. In what will be a prolonged war across many states, we can score this battle won. But General Walker and his lieutenants can do more to assure that their victory becomes permanent.
They can begin by taking their story more public than they have, dominating the airwaves just as their union adversaries are doing. They should do so in all possible forums, not only those already sympathetic to their point of view. They should arm themselves with stories about hundreds of thousands of dollars shelled out for “overtime,” double-dipping by elected officials into state pension systems, and the high lifestyles public-sector union’ executives enjoy. Polls show that the public is clearly not of one mind on many of the issues at stake; responses vary as questions are changed. Great leaders do not follow public opinion. They attempt to shape it. That cannot be done through procedural maneuvers alone.
In the weeks ahead, Walker will be facing judicial challenges, more procedural battles, and a possible recall attempt. He will make the lots of Generals Kasich, Christie, and others easier if he fights back hard and on all fronts. Having chosen to wage this battle, Walker is obliged to win it.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg is the author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. He currently lectures at Yale University and the George Washington University and is affiliated with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.