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I'm a Minnesota Girl, living in the south. I tell my friends I try not to talk and think like a Yankee, but sometimes I slip up!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No Glittering Generalities

Preface: I am the daughter of a lifelong member of the Steelworkers' Union. My dad was not a leader or an organizer for the union, he was a member of the rank and file. He knew that the union was often just as dysfunctional as the managment teams of the steel industries. Some of what they bargained for made sense, some was over the top, sometimes they were right, sometimes wrong. I remember a couple of layoffs and a couple of strikes in the 18 years that the food on my table was based on the results of collective bargaining. Dad was lucky, his brother in law owned a construction firm in So. Dakota, and Dad would go to Uncle Keith during periods of layoff or strike to keep food on the table. And, he'd hunt.

As an adult, I have never worked for a firm that had union labor. I have, in Human Resources, been asked, and have complied in anti-union presentations and measures, informing the workforce, to try and help prevent the roots of union efforts. Had the unions prevailed, I would have complied by following the rules set by collective bargaining.

My dad and I are/were simply people affected (or not) by the organization of labor and collective bargaining. We did what made sense to us, given where we were in our environments.

Today, there is no way to generalize about the situation each company or state has with their unions. I lived in Connecticut and New York, and I was simply amazed at some local levels of the concessions won by unions. In wealthy counties around NYC, the salaries of teachers and the ability to work overtime for policemen resulted in simply astounding 6 figure salaries. Union bargaining, both public and private, results in very different outcomes in states like Florida and Wisconsin. In Florida, when I got here, the teachers were working without a contract, had not had raises in 3 years, and started at $23,000 a year. This was in the 90's. I was appalled at how little power they had.

This is where we find ourselves. The public sector unions in Wisconsin that we have learned about, are very different than those that will negotiate in say, New Jersey. In Wisconsin, without the police, firemen and troopers, the unions (most of whose members are women), make slightly less than the average worker in Wisconsin. Their benefits are better. Overwhelmingly, they have degrees, but have accepted lesser pay as a trade-off for better benefits. Now they are faced with austerity measures, and yes, they need to "pony up". And, they were willing to, just not under the gun of a 5 day deadline, where the proposal called not only for benefits cuts but also for loss of collective bargaining. They balked.

The governor, who has been in power for less than 60 days, is Scott Walker. He is an anti-abortion Republican who did not finish college. He is a fiscal conservative, and has been all of his political career. He has had somewhat minor roles in politics, serving as a small-city Wisconsin state assemblyman for 4 terms, and as an elected county official as the county manager for Milwaukee for 8 years. While with the county, he cut headcount by 20%, but overall spending increased by 35%. He made no bones about the need to address public sector union benefits during his campaign, but alluded to cuts in collective bargaining, as well. The voters knew what they were getting, however, he ascended to the governorship with less than a stunning mandate, winning by 52% to his opponent;s 46%. He has accepted over $100,000 in camaign funding from the Koch brothers.

What Walker did is characteristic of people who don't have experience on the broader stage of politics. He assumed that his win, and the Republican majority in both houses meant that he could pass every measure he wanted. Some would say Obama did the same. However, Walker did not study what the big boys were doing in other states, building consensus, reaching out to voters from the other side. He immediately passed a bill that would guarantee corporations 0% tax rates to enter Wisconsin. This made the impending deficit much worse. He moved from there to budget balancing, but his bill not only called for deep concessions, but effectively for abandoning collective bargaining in all instances in the future, except for base wages. . He had a small surplus when he entered the position, but was facing a 2 year future deficit that he is trying to head off. The anti-union political forces in the nation thought that Wisconsin would be a great test case, and urged fast action. Walker complied, giving the state/legislature only 5 days to consider his bill. He claims it is all about the budget. If it is, why are firefighters, police and state trooper unions exempt? Their benefit to wage ratio is even higher than those in play right now.

And the public unions, later rallying a majority of the voters (estimates are at the 60%) level, have refused. They have made concessions on budgetary matters, Walker has refused to budge. The unions he protected, the firefighters, police and state troopers...can read between the lines. They, for the most part, are supporting the backlash. Given what we've seen of his personality and his inability to back down or build concensus to move forward, it is my guess that he will lay off workers and the bill will remain in stalemate for some time. If he does this, he will lose even more of voter support. He is more articulate than Sarah Palin, but just as misguided when it comes to leadership and communication. He is a man with a plan.

And, in taking these actions so sophomorically, so out of tune with what the middle class backlash is trying to tell him, Scott Walker will inflame the progressive movement, the unions in all states, much of middle class independent voters in a way not seen since the tea party came on site. And, in some states, where the unions are being intractable or where they have won mind-blowing concessions (71% of total compensation for police workers in Camden, NJ is benefits, not salary), they will be more successful in not "giving their fair share" because Scott Walker is a ninny.

And all of this crap does not create jobs.

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