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Economy / BUDGET

Fallout from Wisconsin

Experts from both sides of the battle weigh in.

(Mark Hirsch/Getty Images)

March 11, 2011

Participating Experts:

Josh Culling, State Affairs Manager, Americans for Tax Reform.

Paul Maslin, veteran Democratic pollster based in Madison, Wisc., who worked for Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett in the last election.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of
Teachers, which has 1.5 million members.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.5 million members.

Tim Phillips is president of Americans for Prosperity, which has campaigned to cut state spending and curb collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions.

Kimberly Freeman Brown is executive director at America Rights at work, an advocacy group affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Stanton D. Anderson, a partner at the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery, is senior counsel to the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

As the fallout from Wisconsin's battle over collective bargaining takes shape, National Journal has asked experts from both sides of the issue to debate what it means. Is this crucial for fiscal stability? Is it a death knell for organized labor? What's at stake for other states and the nation as a whole?

Josh Culling: A Victory for Democracy

The past 20 days in Wisconsin, culminating with Senate Republicans’ decision last night to pass a standalone collective bargaining reform bill, have constituted a victory on a number of fronts.

It is a victory for the long-term health of Wisconsin’s economy. The state faces a $3.6 billion overspending problem that Gov. Scott Walker has vowed to eliminate without harmful tax increases. Part of that process involves cutting costs at the local level. Rather than allowing state aid cuts to result in painful local property tax increases, the budget repair bill gives local governments a menu of options to get their primary cost driver – government employee compensation – under control.


It is a victory for the democratic process. An election was held just over four months ago. Wisconsin voters chose to dispose of Democratic majorities in both chambers of the state legislature and elect a Republican governor to replace Jim Doyle’s failed approach. For Senate Democrats and their labor union allies, that was not a sufficient mandate for change. The entire caucus fled to Illinois for nearly three weeks, a procedural technicality designed to avoid the 20-member quorum needed for action on budgetary items. They leaked a number of demands from their secret hideout and even offered a clandestine border meeting with Republicans (presumably toeing the state line from the Illinois side to stay safely out of the jurisdiction of Wisconsin troopers). Republicans patiently waited out the PR spectacle for as long as possible, finally throwing up their hands and taking the necessary action to begin Wisconsin’s economic rehabilitation process.

It is, perhaps more than anything, a victory for Illinois, which received a much-needed economic stimulus from a group of 14 vacationers.

Gov. Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and House Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald refused to blink in the face of intense union-backed pressure, and have achieved hero status in the conservative movement for their principled (yet commonsense) idea that shared sacrifice is a prerequisite for getting Wisconsin’s economy back on track.

Paul Maslin: 'VICTORY'???!!!  Pyrrhus Had Nothing on Scott Walker.

I was Gray Davis’ pollster from 1993 through his two gubernatorial victories and his ultimate defeat to a recall movement and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.

Make no mistake, the union-busting strategy whose true nature was finally completely unmasked by the junta-like power play at the State Capitol in Madison last night will lead to Walker’s premature ouster from office. He has been trapped by too many lies and the punk nature of the attempted suspension of democratic principles (Lincoln had an actual war to fight when he suspended habeas corpus; Walker is trying to beat up on elementary school teachers) by him and his cronies. Whether or not we succeed in ousting enough Senators from office this year, and Wisconsin politics will be dominated for the next several months by those recall campaigns, the ultimate fate for Walker is sealed: he will be recalled from office as soon as legally possible.

Every move he has made in this farcical and sad Napoleonic play has dug himself deeper into a base that will not be strong enough to save him as the middle grows more and more angry at his actions. The “Koch” call (“Thanks a million”) exposed him as someone willing to talk to billionaires, unwilling to negotiate with duly-elected legislators. It was the first absolute evidence of a disturbing pattern: the same people who consider sending thugs into demonstrations to cause trouble are the same people who demonstrate juvenile behavior by withholding pay from legislators, fining them for their absence, and, ultimately, tricking the people of Wisconsin with a vote on the most heinous of their proposals after no debate with no Democrats present.

I was Tom Barrett’s pollster in the gubernatorial campaign which Walker won—under false pretenses, it turns out. Never in those two years did Walker ever mutter a word about destroying the collective bargaining rights of public employees. If he had, he would have lost then and spared the state and nation the ugliness and pettiness of his real beliefs. He has misrepresented the problems facing Wisconsin, he has lied about the actual purpose of his “repair” bill, he has spit in the face of a state justifiably prideful toward its democratic tradition, and now he will reap the whirlwind. The true “repair” bill will be the one that the Democratic Governor who succeeds him next year must pay to clean up the Walker mess.

 Paul Maslin

Cheesehead for Democracy

Randi Weingarten: History and Voters Will Not Be Kind

Scott Walker and his allies in the Wisconsin state legislature showed an utter disregard for their constituents and for democratic values from start to finish of this ugly episode. Pretending it was for budgetary reasons, Walker gave up all pretenses by ramming through his legislation to strip workers of their rights without debate (and without a mandate).

The fact that the world has witnessed this shocking power grab was due to the principled stand of the 14 state senators who gave Wisconsinites the time and opportunity to see Walker's true intentions. Walker and his allies were not only hell-bent on taking away public workers' -- their constituents' -- rights, they ignored the objections of Wisconsinites who were horrified by the governor's overreaching masquerading as budget-cutting. 

The governor may have won a bitter political victory, but he has lost far more important ground. History -- and voters -- will be unkind to these political opportunists who acted with only their interests and ideology in mind. It took underhanded maneuvering to pass this legislation -- from manipulating the legislation so that it could be brought to a vote, to holding the vote without the duly elected representatives of thousands of Wisconsinites. 

This is a blow for anyone who values democracy and fairness. But it is also a clarion call to defend those principles, and the call is being answered by people from across Wisconsin and beyond -- farmers, teachers, union members, non-union members, parents, people of faith, people of good will -- who are not cowed or silenced by this act. They are emboldened and determined to right this wrong. Walker undoubtedly never imagined that his affront to fairness, justice and voice (in other words, American democratic values) would inspire people to stand up for the very values for which he showed such disdain.


Governor Walker’s budget in Wisconsin demonstrates a new reality – in order to get our economy moving, government spending has to be cut, and the public sector union pensions and benefits brought into line with the private sector.  


Our first AFP Wisconsin event was January of 2005.  Our first Madison rally was 2007 as we opposed then Governor Doyle's big spending budget that included too much money for public employee unions (yes, we were protested by literally thousands of angry union members then as well).  While the angry protests in Madison garner much of the attention from the national media, AFP just completed a 12 stop bus tour across the rest of the state -- including stops in the districts of the mission state senate Democrats.  Our crowds were huge and supportive despite attempted intimidation in a number of cases from public employee unions. 


The government employee unions risk further alienation from the taxpayers who pay their salaries if they do not fully condemn the threats of violence that have occurred this week. At AFP we have condemned the death threats and other violence yet too many union leaders have refused to take this basic step to call out violent elements. 


I applaud Governor Walker and the Wisconsin State Senate for their vote Wednesday putting a stop to collective bargaining – the catalyst for ballooning pensions and benefits that are contributing to the state’s $3.6 billion deficit.  Gov. Walker’s budget reform is finally shining a light on how government, at any level, cannot continue spending what it doesn’t have in order to serve the interest of emboldened union leaders.


The reality is that workers in the private sector since 2008 have lost 8 million jobs in America and the government workforce at the county, city, state, and federal level has actually increased.  Including benefits, federal employees are making nearly double what private sector workers earn. Additionally, half or more of state budgets are going to pay for retirement, pension benefits for retired workers or for the current workforce, with budgets that are unsustainable no matter how you slice them. 


For Wisconsin, and states across the country balancing their currently unsustainable budgets, the reality is that it’s necessary to end collective bargaining and pass budget reform to restore the balance between private sector workers and public sector employees. 

Tim Phillips is the President of Americans for Prosperity


Kimberly Freeman Brown: Unions Are Just Starting to Fight Back


If Americans had any lingering doubts about the intent of Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on public employees, they’ve been answered. By removing every part of the bill that involved spending, Wisconsin State Senate Republicans made the bill’s true purpose undeniably clear. Turns out, this was never about the budget. It was about unionbusting—breaking the last line of defense for the middle class so that CEOs can have free rein.


Flying in the face of decades of legal precedent and overwhelming public opposition, Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald shamelessly admitted the true motive behind Gov. Walker’s plan in a recent interview: to bankrupt unions in advance of the 2012 elections.


But Americans don’t give up that easily. They understand that if politicians like Gov. Walker were serious about tackling our fiscal challenges, they wouldn’t be handing out tax breaks to the same CEOs that got our economy into this mess. And they know that attacking the rights of hardworking nurses, teachers, and first responders won’t address our budget woes or create jobs.


That’s why we’ve already seen more than 100 demonstrations in every state capital, with more rallies planned for the weeks to come. That’s why actors, musicians, and athletes are standing with the workers under attack in Madison and across the country. And that’s why Wisconsin is just the beginning.


I read with great interest the commentary by Josh Culling and Paul Maslin, and certainly, the developments in Wisconsin are creating a lot of heat but perhaps not much light.
It seems to me that what is happening in Wisconsin has to be viewed in a much broader context.  Many states are facing the same financial issues as is Wisconsin.  The first question I would pose is:  How did we get in this position in the first place?  The answer seems to be that state and local governments, over time, have allowed the costs of overall government programs -- and in particular, the costs surrounding public employees -- to rise significantly.
In the past, there was an unspoken social compact that public employees would make less than their private-sector equivalents but that they would have job security.  In recent years, that formula has been turned on its head.  There is a lot of data now showing that public-sector employees make higher salaries with higher benefits than their private-sector counterparts.  Now, these public employees are facing the specter of losing jobs.
The second issue that the events in Wisconsin underline is:  What is the appropriate role for public-employee unions?  Of course, there is no collective bargaining for federal employees, though they have done relatively well in recent years even though their union leadership did not have the power to negotiate.  It does seem a bit unseemly that powerful public-employee unions would focus their considerable resources on electing officials and then sit across the table and negotiate with them, which has obviously resulted in the wage scales we see for public employees across the country.
We should not denigrate the importance of our public employees who keep us safe and teach our children.  The fundamental question remains:  What level of government services do we demand of our government at the local, state, and federal levels, and how are we going to pay for those services?


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