Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker is in need of, as former President George H.W. Bush once famously said, that vision thing.
As bold as the governor has been in calling for tough cuts to the budget, he’s been equally timid in laying out the reasons to restrain collective bargaining in the public sector. He’s taking the approach of a revolutionary reformer, but with the arguments of a number-crunching accountant.
If an elected official is going to bring up an issue sure to gin up opposition, he needs to use every play in the playbook to make his case—and, in Wisconsin, the burden is now on Walker to make a full-fledged argument on altering the relationship between government and public sector unions.
Instead, Walker has backed himself into a rhetorical corner by insisting the move is just about the state’s balance sheet—not the debate over how much unions should influence the government workforce.
Walker is starting to lose the narrow argument that restraining collective bargaining is all about Wisconsin's budget woes. Wisconsin is one of only four states that currently have a fully funded pension system, according to a Pew Center on the States study, even as most other states are deeply in the red.
And a newly released Pew Research Center poll finds respondents taking labor's side: 42 percent favor the unions, compared to 31 percent supporting Walker.
That doesn’t mean that limiting the public sector’s collective-bargaining rights isn’t good policy—or good long-term politics, either.
The generous benefits that have been negotiated in the past are unsustainable in the long term, especially with the baby boom generation heading into retirement. Any system where labor unions are effectively negotiating with their allies, at least when labor-backed Democrats are in power, is fundamentally unfair. And collective-bargaining agreements for teachers are filled with the kind of bureaucratic work rules that make firing incompetent teachers all but impossible, offering minimal incentive for excellence.
Even longtime labor leader Andy Stern, the former head of the Service Employees International Union, told The Washington Post that the status quo for unions was unacceptable—and that unions have been too slow to take the lead in advancing reforms to make the movement more relevant.
“The question is whether the public-sector unions can get on the side of innovation and quality,” Stern said.
That’s the argument Walker could be making in tandem with budget concerns. It’s not just about penny-pinching, but about advocating strategies to make government more efficient, effective, and accountable.
Americans care as much about the quality and effectiveness of government services as they do about guaranteeing benefits to government workers. The documentary Waiting for Superman showcased the human cost of rules protecting ineffective teachers in public schools. Ask anyone about their local DMV if you want a ground-level view of government services.
That’s the real-life argument Republicans would be wise to embrace as they make the hard sell on fiscal reforms. The public might be prepared for straight talk on entitlements, but it’s important to offer reforms—the light at the end of the tunnel—in exchange for austerity. It might take painful cuts at first, but it’s in the service of a long-term benefit.
Focusing on the narrower budget implications of restraining collective bargaining, by contrast, is a tougher sell. Taking away collective bargaining, simply put, doesn’t come across well to many Americans.
A USA Today/Gallup poll found that 61 percent of national respondents opposed “taking away some collective bargaining rights of most public unions.” The Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found 58 percent of Wisconsin voters are opposed to restricting collective bargaining—and 41 percent feel strongly about their opposition.
That doesn’t mean it’s ultimately a losing issue for the governor. On a complex subject like collective bargaining, where many Americans are just beginning to learn about the issue, the numbers will be volatile. The precise wording of a question—Gallup frames collective bargaining as a “right,” for example—can skew the results.
But right now, Walker is losing the argument. Conservative and business groups haven’t effectively offered a cohesive message, being outspent on paid media by union forces. It’s striking to see how some of the biggest players in the 2010 midterms, like American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are sitting the Wisconsin fight out, while the Republican Governors Association—which usually spends money on candidates, not causes—just went up with a buy.
“There’s been a failure on the part of those who agree with Walker’s position to define it as a public versus private union fight,” said one veteran Republican pollster.
Making that sustained argument for reform has proven to be a winning long-term strategy for other Republican governors. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie highlighted the broken public education system to justify cuts to teachers’ pensions, offering the promise of necessary reforms alongside sacrifice. He traveled across the state, making the argument to friendly and critical audiences alike. Christie made bashing teachers’ unions, which was once a losing tactic in New Jersey, a political winner.
In October of 2009, a 45 percent plurality of New Jersey voters thought teachers’ unions played a positive role in education, according to Quinnipiac. That number dipped 9 points to 36 percent just over a year later, with 52 percent viewing them negatively. Christie’s public advocacy on the subject made a major difference.
In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels cleaned up an ineffective child-protection services bureaucracy by getting rid of the sclerotic union rules regulating the workplace. Daniels initially saw his approval ratings dip after ending collective bargaining with public sector unions in his state—over work rules—and privatizing some government services and the state’s toll road. But making the argument that he put the state’s fiscal house in order, he won reelection with 58 percent of the vote even as President Obama, at the top of the Democratic ticket, carried his state.
Daniels, now governing one of the few states with a healthy fiscal outlook, is making a serious intellectual case for fiscal reforms as he mulls a presidential bid.
In an interview with NPR this week, Daniels advised that, in dealing with a complicated issue, you “ought to not spring it suddenly on the public and the Legislature” but instead “go out and develop the idea, advocate the idea.”
That’s where Walker has fallen short, and it’s a valuable lesson for congressional Republicans as they look to take the lead on the ongoing budget battle.
This article appears in the March 2, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.