Last week when the Wisconsin state senate passed a modified version of the budget repair bill, Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent wrote: "Wisconsin Repubicans took the drastic step of breaking up the budget repair bill and passing only a measure rolling back the collective bargaining rights of public employees."

The problem with that sentence is that it's not true. The bill passed that night included both the measure curtailing collective bargaining and the provision requiring public employees to pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits.

This isn't a minor issue. Democrats thought it would be a potent talking point if Republicans only passed the collective bargaining restrictions:

Democrats were accusing [Walker] of including the collective bargaining restrictions for no other reason than to weaken unions, saying the collective bargaining provisions had no fiscal impact. On the surface, separating the bills would seem to validate this criticism, although no one knows better than union bosses just how important a tool limiting collective bargaining would be to reducing expenditures on public employees.

So Sargent misreported the central issue related to the bill's passage and did so in a way that happened to underscore union talking points. A week later, the Washington Post blogger still hasn't gotten around to correcting this glaring factual inaccuracy in his own report.* But he has found time to attack what he calls a "bogus" Republican TV ad that "badly distorts the history of the Wisconsin standoff."

The ad by Republican senator Randy Hopper, who is a top target of Democratic recall efforts, claims:

Another day, another protest in Madison. With nearly eight percent unemployment, you’d think asking government workers for five percent towards their retirement and 12 percent for their health care costs would be acceptable. It’s reasonable. But union bosses want to keep bargaining for more perks.

Sargent objects:

again, the unions themselves have said those concessions are acceptable -- union leaders agreed to them way back in February. But this makes it sound as if unions unreasonably refused to agree to them

The reality is much more complicated than Sargent lets on. Yes, union leaders said they'd agree to these concessions. But at the very same time, local unions were rushing through contracts that did not include those concessions.

More importantly, Walker's bill did not require public school teachers or local government employees to pay more for their health insurance premiums, it only required them to pay more for their pensions. The bill got rid of the collective bargaining for benefits in order to give local governments and school districts the option of making employees pay more for health benefits. (Enacting these benefits changes would allow school districts to make up for reductions in state aid.) In other words, the statewide teachers' union made a promise it didn't really have the authority to make. The decision to concede on health benefits ultimately rested with local unions.

And there's the rub. Walker always argued that curtailing collective bargaining was a necessary step in order to ensure that during a budget crunch school districts were able to choose benefits reductions over massive layoffs--a choice that had rested with the teachers' unions under collective bargaining agreements.

Sargent's other criticism of the Republican ad is that it

traffics in the myth of the overpaid public employee, decrying a “union bus driver in Madison making $160,000 a year.” But this, too, is a distortion: It turns out that this is not the bus driver’s annual salary at all. Rather, as local Wisconsin media reported widely, he made that money because he put in lots of overtime, clocking nearly 4,000 hours last year, and the manager of the Madison metro transit system said the driver did nothing wrong.

There is no "myth." The bus driver did make $160,000 in a year (and of course, that public employee's pension will be based on his highest paid years). In fact, the Republican ad makes clear that much of the $160,000 came from overtime: the narrator mentions "the union bus driver in Madison, making $160,000 a year, much of it from overtime due to collective bargaining."But Sargent, for reasons known only to him, chose to elide that part of the GOP ad. The best case scenario is that Sargent made a sloppy mistake; the worst case is that he deliberately cut that line in order make a political argument. In either case, Sargent's reporting is more misleading than a paid political ad.

The real issue here is that Sargent apparently thinks that it's not unreasonable for taxpayers to pay $160,000 in one year for a bus driver, when many people think it would be more reasonable to hire three bus drivers for $53,000 per year.

the city of Madison went to the bus drivers union last year and said the rules allowing the highest-paid bus drivers to snap up the most overtime had become a major problem. Turns out the union agreed, and renegotiated a deal to limit overtime in a way that has left Metro Transit happy. And guess what: That deal was negotiated through collective bargaining.

It would be nice to know how big of a concession the union made (a spokesman for the Metro Transit has not returned a call from me), but that fact makes the union seem at least a bit more reasonable. However, Sargent again fails to acknowledge the obvious -- this problem was created by collective bargaining in the first place, and it was the city -- not the union -- that took the initiative to fix it. Of course the issue was eventually renegotiated through collective baragaining. The problem with collective bargaining is that it gives unions veto power over changes to work rules, so every problem must be solved with the union's consent, in a way that union leaders find most advantageous.

*It should be noted that Sargent wasn't alone in misreporting the fast-breaking events in Wisconsin last week. (In fact, I got a minor detail wrong.) Many reporters thought the bill had stripped the benefits provisions. Some updated or corrected their initial reports. Others, like Sargent and Talking Points Memo, let their errors stand. And days later, New York Times reporters were writing very misleading stories about the fight in Wisconsin.

The point is that some reporters have done more than political advertisements to distort the history of the Wisconsin standoff.

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