As Goes Wisconsin… So Goes the Nation

As Goes Wisconsin... So Goes the Nation

Randall Wentz works for the University of Wisconsin, vetting scholarship
applications. He is a public employee, a union member. He makes $30,000
per year. We are sitting in a Madison, Wis., tavern with five of
Randall’s friends. All have 6-year-olds; they became friends through
their children. All are public employees. Several are computer techies
who make $60,000 a year. One is a middle school music teacher. These are
educated, decent people, open and friendly in the Wisconsin way. They
seem in equal parts flummoxed and infuriated by Governor Scott Walker’s
effort to limit the powers of their unions, his attempt to end
collective bargaining for anything but wages and to restrict the unions’
ability to collect dues. An essential fact of their lives — the
security that has traditionally been attached to public employment —has suddenly been shattered. Most can handle the increases in pension
and health care co-pays the governor has proposed. But Wentz is in a
different category. He shows me his finances on a carefully folded piece
of paper. “If this passes,” he says, “I go off a cliff.”
But there are some very good reasons governors of both parties are
trying to limit the power of public employees’ unions. “I’ve spent years
pleading for modest concessions from the unions,” says Bob Ziegelbauer,
a Wisconsin state representative and the chief executive of Manitowoc
County. “The reaction is, ‘You can’t make me.” Ziegelbauer used to be
a Democrat and now calls himself an independent, but he caucuses with
the state Republicans. He says when he was able to negotiate a
settlement with local union representatives, their leaders often would
veto it. “There’s a ruthlessness in attitude at the union headquarters.
The leaders would rather take layoffs than make concessions.” Sometimes
the union intransigence is downright ridiculous. “We spend $650,000 a
year to keep our county juvenile-detention facility open. In recent
years, we’ve had as few as one or two juveniles incarcerated there at a
time,” Ziegelbauer tells me. “I wanted to close down the place and use
the facility in a neighboring county. But the union blocked it on the
grounds that it was outside contracting.” Such horror stories are especially common in the biggest cities, where
unions have the strength of numbers and a tradition of dealing with, and
helping to elect, liberal, pro-union politicians. This is a major
advantage that public employees’ unions have: unlike construction
workers and miners, they can vote their bosses in or out. Their unions
make political contributions, mount advertising campaigns and run phone
banks. Public employees tend to be ferocious campaigners and assiduous
voters, the sort of constituents politicians find panderworthy. And this
power has enabled them to distort the system, especially when it comes
to work rules, health benefits and pensions — concessions politicians
are more likely to grant, since they are future promises that, until
recently, have had little immediate impact on the bottom line.

Another advantage has to do with the nature of public work. “There is a
fundamental dysfunction here,” says former New York City schools
chancellor Joel Klein. “It isn’t the same as, say, General Motors
dealing with the United Auto Workers. The UAW understands, ultimately,
that if it doesn’t get real about health and pension benefits, GM could
close, and all their jobs will be lost. When I sat across the table from
the teachers’ union, their negotiators knew we weren’t going to close
down the schools.” In New York, as in other big cities, the unions
routinely won concessions that were quite astounding. The teachers, especially, became a reactionary force when it came to
school reform — opposing charter schools and merit pay; they lashed themselves to strict seniority rules
more appropriate to assembly-line workers than would-be professionals.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to negotiate a
deal whereby layoffs, if necessary, would not be made on a last-hired,
first-fired basis. “So you’d rather have them lay off the more
experienced teachers?” a Wisconsin teacher asked me. No: teachers should
be hired and fired and paid according to their ability. “But who judges
that?” the teacher asked. Their employers do, I replied. The teacher
scoffed; the idea that school principals should be able to decide who
should be part of their workforce seems incomprehensible to most
teachers — and yet that sort of accountability is at the heart of any
system that aspires to excellence.

The strongest arguments against public employees’ unions lie there: in
their power to block reform and strangle good governance. Clearly, there
needs to be a rebalancing of pension and health care benefits that puts
public employees more in line with the conditions that prevail in the
private sector. But those changes must be accompanied by the recognition
that a great many public employees are severely underpaid. This is
especially true at the federal level, where the scientists testing drugs
at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the bank regulators at the
SEC could probably double their salaries by sliding into the private
sector. And it’s also true at the very bottom of the wage scale, for the
school-bus drivers and home health care workers.

The best rationale for the continued existence of public employees’
unions is to create wage floors for such workers. But the unions have
set about, largely unimpeded, to build walls that constrict
government innovation and ceilings that
make it less likely that the most talented professionals will remain in
public service.
“You’re arguing this from a good-government standpoint,” says Scott
Gletty-Syoen, one of the union members who is meeting with me at the
Madison tavern. “But do you really think that’s what Scott Walker wants?
Do you really think that’s where we’re headed in Wisconsin?”

Fair point. And no, I don’t. I think Scott Walker is a reflexive
conservative who would probably be trying to bust his public employees’
unions even if there were a budget surplus. His views are, in part, a
reflection of the antitax fetishism that has become something of a mania
in the U.S. If you want first-class public services — especially
those, like education, that require real skills — you have to pay for
them. The existing
arrangements between government and its employees clearly need a
profound overhaul, but the idea that America can return to the mythic
stability and prosperity of 40 years ago without a well-paid middle
class, including public employees, seems a very dangerous experiment to
undertake. Download TIME’s iPhone, BlackBerry and Android applications.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.