Drive-by Commentary on Wisconsin & The Kochs

You know that scene in Finding Nemo when Dory and Marlin land on the pier in the midst of a flock of seagulls and the seagulls start chanting “Mine. Mine. Mine.”? That’s what the left-centered blogs have sounded like for more than a week, and what the mainstream media looks like today and for the last few days. They’re all screeching “Koch. Koch. Koch.”

Also, on my Facebook page we’re discussing this comment:

We need to modify Godwin’s Law. “Koch” is the new “Hitler.” As WI protests go on, the probability that the media will be dominated by left-blogging chatter about the Kochs approaches 1. If I hear you mention the word, I will immediately dismiss your argument, just like I would if you made a ridiculous Hitler or Nazi reference.

Have Unions Outlived their Usefulness?

Union fights and fiscal shortages continue to dominate the news cycle for the second straight week. This has led to a national conversation about unions, their practices, and workers’ rights in a modern economy. I’ve been thinking for some time that unions have not been effective, at least by the current model. Turns out Andy Stern, Mr. Union himself, has also been thinking along those same lines. It’s certainly fair in light of these current events to examine our rhetoric on unions and ask ourselves whether or not they have outlived their usefulness.

The pro-union arguments of today are vast and varied, but typically fall under three categories: Unions protect workers; unions have a trickle-down effect on the job market; and, every right workers enjoy today they owe to unions. Let’s examine these in detail, shall we?

Unions protect workers.

This is a debatable point. Once upon a time it was demonstrably true, but the unions of yesterday worked hard (in a world with different realities, it’s worth mentioning) to lobby for laws that required humane treatment for workers. Lunch breaks, short breaks, the minimum wage, a process of discipline that must be recorded, protection for medical issues, maternity leave, and attractive benefits packages are all the result of hard work by the unions of yesterday.

But we live in today, not yesterday, and we have those protections thanks to those laws. While it’s true that unions worked to achieve all of that, it is also true that unions have not always (and are not always today) the best friend of workers. Union intimidation is a fact of our history, one that continues today. That intimidation may be turned on the employer and employee alike, depending on what the union wants. In the case of employee intimidation, the idea that workers are protected from unions is turned on its head.

In addition, there is the question of just how much protection is provided someone who does not want to join a union, but must pay dues nonetheless because the workplace is unionized. A tremendous amount of resentment has been built up toward unions over this practice. Union leaders argue that their ability to collectively bargain depends on the assistance of every employee, but that argument is counter-intuitive to the American mindset, which has been predicated on the notions of freedom and choice. The fact of forced union dues is anathema to Democratic principles as the public understands them.

The imbalanced partisanship of unions also puts workers at risk. The largely Democratic partisanship of unions hurts workers, especially when Republicans are in control. The current state of affairs demonstrates that amply. But despite the desire of many on the left, Republicans and conservatives aren’t going away, and they will capture power in cycles, as they have always done. This is the reality of our system of government. We continue to oscillate back and forth between political parties that are characterized by either a desire to advance too slowly for some, or too quickly for others. Our system is designed to balance these two human impulses, to create a fair way for everybody to get some of what they want. When unions align with one side and demonize the other, they risks making unions a target when the side they demonize is in power.

But the partisanship hasn’t recently been an effective strategy for unions on the Democratic side, either, as demonstrated by the spectacular failure of a Democratic-dominated Congress to pass unions’ signature piece of legislation, Card Check.

Unions have a trickle-down effect. Continue reading

Misinformation in Indiana

I live in the great state of Indiana, just a couple of hours down the highway from the capital, which is now vying for Madison, WI for claiming the epicenter of the latest round of partisan wars. There’s a lot of misinformation about what’s going on here in my state, so I thought I’d try to clear some issues up.

  1. The issue for Indiana is strictly a right-to-work bill. Our state employees haven’t been able to collectively bargain since 2005, when Daniels rescinded an old executive order that allowed it.
  2. Earlier today a rumor started that Governor Daniels had called on his fellow Republicans to dump the bill. This rumor was started by partisans as a result of deliberately confusing Daniel’s comments at that press conference. Daniels supports Governor Walker’s effort and had this to say about his ability to control the agenda of the Indiana legislature:

My view on this is well known to the leadership on both sides, well-known to the public. I haven’t changed a single thing. I don’t attempt to dictate the agenda. I’m not in position to, really, of a separate and free-standing superior branch of government. And for that matter, Speaker [Bosma] can’t always dictate to his members when they have a strong point of view. For reasons I’ve explained more than once, I think there was a better time and place to have this very important and legitimate issue raised.

Most of the press conference can be heard here, including that response to a reporter’s question about his views on the right-to-work bill. He simply reiterated his views, which are well known here in Indiana. (His fight this year is accountability in education, and he doesn’t want to be distracted by protests.) Continue reading

Bad optics (via The Crawdad Hole)

Definitely worth checking this post out. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of support for WI unions or Scott Walker, it’s important to understand how the public is perceiving this, especially those with an independent political streak.

In political debates, emotion trumps intellect. If your side can offer evidence that evokes an immediate visceral response in the audience, you win. That's why a "picture is worth a thousand words." The best arguments are emotionally powerful but also supported by logic and reason. A good example of this is the Civil Rights Movement. Strong arguments for freedo … Read More

via The Crawdad Hole

WI Budget Bill Now a Moot Point

Now there’s a headline you won’t read anywhere else. Amidst all the hollering and blathering and the staking of ground, the reality that the budget bill is a moot point now has yet to occur to either side, or to the mainstream media. The bill was designed to generate just $137 million in savings. Now let’s think about what’s been lost in all the hoopla:

  1. So far, three days of Madison School District federal funding, which districts receive based on whether they are open or not, and the number of students on any given day. If a child isn’t there, the funding for that child is cut for the day. If the school is closed, the funding for that school is cut for the day. I have no idea what that total would amount to, but to give you an idea of what’s involved, the annual budget for the district two years ago was over $412 million.
  2. Lost revenue in other state services for four days so far, as well as the cost of catch up once workers return.
  3. Hundreds of extra police and safety officers on the ground in Madison for four days so far, 500+ today, some from outside the jurisdiction who’ve been asked to lend a hand. You can bet there is a significant amount of overtime involved.
  4. Clean up. Madison held about 70,000 protesters and counter-protesters today.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there will be more costs associated with all of this. There’s no doubt that the combined total of what this will cost the state of Wisconsin will far exceed the $137 million in savings. That’s really the most salient fact, but nobody is paying attention to it. I guess that’s because there will surely be more pain and sacrifice required as a result, something I doubt the protesters have even considered.

Late Night Open Thread: Ossified Worldview Edition

Joe Klein wrote a blog post that actually made sense, about America’s changing views on unions, especially public employee unions. He summarized his case this way:

An election was held in Wisconsin last November. The Republicans won. In a democracy, there are consequences to elections and no one, not even the public employees unions, are exempt from that. There are no guarantees that labor contracts, including contracts governing the most basic rights of unions, can’t be renegotiated, or terminated for that matter. We hold elections to decide those basic parameters. And it seems to me that Governor Scott Walker’s basic requests are modest ones–asking public employees to contribute more to their pension and health care plans, though still far less than most private sector employees do.

That’s basically what I was saying yesterday, and the opinion that seems to be crystallizing among non-partisans and the general public. Guess who got pissed off? Go on, I bet you’ll never guess… Continue reading

Thoughts on the Wisconsin Protests

I’ve been looking everywhere today for a non-partisan source on what’s happening with the protests in Wisconsin. A few good folks are trying to figure it out, but mostly the battle lines are drawn. The issue revolves around a bill up before the Wisconsin state legislature today that would curb collective bargaining power for public employees, and adjust the system of benefits they are offered.

The issue has to do with public unions, and any time you’re in union territory, you’re in the heart of partisan pie fights. Unions have quickly become like abortion and gun control, where otherwise sensible people pick a side based on an intuitive understanding, with precious little examination of the history or the current reality. A lot of people just don’t think; they’re either pro- or anti-union. In this environment, it’s doubtful we’ll get anywhere. We’ll just continue to fight it out on partisan grounds, turning the conventions of organized working life into little more than a spectator sport for people who aren’t on the teams. Only one in four American workers belongs to a union, after all.

The problem is that neither side can be trusted. Unions have a long and continuing history of corruption against the people they purport to protect, as well as a propensity to use disingenuous arguments to create for the public the reality they want them to see. On the other hand, governments have a much longer history of exactly the same things. In America, it’s popular to think that unions are less powerful than governments, but that depends on the government.

There really is no underdog in this fight. Governments use a system of cronyism to enrich the money players who work with them in electoral politics, and unions use their union members’ dues to buy access to the same system of cronyism. The people in the middle, the folks who are actually members of the union, are caught between a rock and a hard place. Many see the unions as the first takers of a financial cut of their wages, followed closely by the government, who also takes their cut. Neither side is spending the people’s money wisely.

In this environment, how is one to truly know what’s going on Wisconsin? Almost every article I’ve seen touts the authors’ rhetorical stakes in the game by the very verbiage they use. One thing we can do is illuminate the discrepancies in the existing arguments. We can also ask a lot of questions, and find the answers. Let’s start with those discrepancies.

Most of the arguments revolve around the issue of the state budget. Walker and his conservative allies have claimed a $137 million budget shortfall this year as reason for the new law. The unions and their allies have said this deficit shortfall is the result of Walker blowing a budget surplus on his “cronies.” A closer looks reveals that both are being disingenuous. There is no surplus, and the $137 million dollar price tag does come at the price of some questionable crony-esque activity on the part of newly elected politicians, Walker among them.

What’s missing in all this—from both sides—are the deficit concerns, which have been discussed in the media for a long time. Here’s a local story from 2008, when the state had a Democratic governor, which the unions favored. It details a $5.4 billion dollar deficit through 2011. Here’s another local story from 2010, which details the dirty accounting trick the former Democratic governor played on Walker when he was Governor-elect. It also details a $2.2 billion dollar deficit for the next two years, or $3.3 billion if Walker doesn’t do what Democratic Governor Doyle suggests Walker should, incidentally choices Doyle himself would never make. Continue reading