Scott Walker, new-minted Republican governor of Wisconsin, and GOP majorities in both houses of the state legislature faced a shortfall of $137 million in this year’s budget, and of $3.6 billion over the next two years. To plug the gap they decided to ask state employees in public-sector unions to pay more of their own pensions and health-care premiums. They also sought to scale back union power by ending automatic dues payments and the right to collective bargaining for salaries and benefits.
These are reasonable goals. Public-sector employees in Wisconsin, as in other states, have better benefit packages than private-sector workers, superior job security, and at least equivalent pay. Benefits guarantee continuing benefits, world without end, as union dues fuel political spending (overwhelmingly on Democrats) that helps keep friendly pols in office, and the threat of strikes encourages pols to stay friendly. That is why many states, and the federal government, do not allow public-sector unions to bargain collectively — public-employee strikes do not pit one interest against another, but one interest against all taxpayers.
Unions, Democrats, and liberals saw the magnitude of the threat and reacted accordingly. The state capitol at Madison was overwhelmed by protesters, many of them teachers. They called in “sick,” and some doctors at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine enabled the fraud by handing out bogus medical excuses. The scene became a frozen Woodstock, with singing, drumming, scruff, and trash. Jesse Jackson, left-wing ambulance chaser, arrived to compare the mob to Egyptians in Tahrir Square. Where was Al Sharpton? Maybe he really was sick. The union street theater became notably ugly and personal. Walker’s house was surrounded by protesters, and Scott Fitzgerald, Republican leader in the state senate, moved himself and his family to an undisclosed location to avoid similar harassment. The show crossed state lines when all 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois, to deny a quorum. This was the rule-or-ruin strategy of bitter-enders, pushing political prerogatives to the limit, or beyond.
Wisconsin has become a national passion play. Liberals seek villains in Charles and David Koch, libertarian billionaires who indeed support conservative causes there — though their influence is so arm’s-length that when a liberal blogger called Governor Walker pretending to be a Koch, he did not recognize the hoax, having never spoken with one before. President Obama chimed in, opining that “some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin . . . seems like more of an assault on unions.” But he has to step carefully: After all, he has urged a federal pay freeze, which, if enacted, federal employees must accept (see above). Wisconsin Republicans meanwhile have showed both commendable spirit and possibly shrewd restraint, calculating that the longer the protesters carry on, the worse they look — though letting the capitol become a left-wing flophouse is a public affront.
Wisconsin may be the harbinger of larger and later clashes. States, which cannot print money, have to get their finances in order — or come to Washington for bailouts. Will the next General Motors and Chrysler be Illinois and California? And for what — the interests of politically protected classes, battening off the taxes of their less-favored neighbors?