The Magazine

Walker’s Big Bet

Will the voters of Wisconsin stand up to the unions?

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Madison, Wisconsin

Walker’s Big Bet

Gary Locke

‘Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality,” quipped Republican Wisconsin governor Lee Dreyfus in 1978. At no point in the past three decades have his words been truer than during the past two weeks.

Protesters have taken over the capitol building. They bang on drums at all hours of the day. “Freedom! Democracy! Union!” is one of their favorite chants. Their goal, of course, is preventing a vote on Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill that would change the benefits and collective bargaining rights for public employee union members. To achieve that end, the state’s 14 senate Democrats have fled to a hotel in Illinois in order to deny the quorum needed for a budget vote.

Outside, public school teachers, along with a smattering of socialists, other state workers, and their own children, rally against the legislation. “I want everybody to jump the f— up in solidarity,” musician Tom Morello tells the crowd gathered on February 21. “I’m sorry if there are some children in the audience, but the struggle for justice is not always rated PG-13.”

“No matter whatever Scott Walker, the Mubarak of the Midwest, says, this land is your land,” continues Morello, formerly of the funk metal band Rage Against the Machine, before singing “This Land Is Your Land.”

Mubarak/Walker comparisons are prevalent. So are signs equating Walker to Hitler. “In 1933, [Hitler] abolished unions, and that’s what our governor is doing today,” Democratic state senator Lena Taylor said in front of a camera before she skipped town. Not to be outdone, some clever Teamsters have come up with their own signs: “Hosni + Hitler = Walker.”

To help mock the Madison/Cairo comparisons, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show even brought in a live camel. The poor thing, obviously not used to snow and ice, got tripped up by a metal fence, fell to the ground, and brayed pathetically until firefighters rescued it.

As surreal as the scene in Madison has been in recent weeks, it may be the new reality of American politics (well, without the camel). The protests were kicked off, after all, by Walker’s attempt to deal with the $3.6 billion hole in the state’s biennial budget, a problem not unique to Wisconsin. The unrest in Madison could spread to other state capitals where governors try to rein in out-of-control spending on the pensions and health care benefits of unionized government workers. The fight in Madison may very well play out on the national stage if and when Congress attempts to slash the federal deficit—which is about one thousand times bigger than Wisconsin’s.

Yes, the reaction in Wisconsin has been extraordinarily fierce because Walker is trying to roll back union power by limiting the collective bargaining rights of school teachers to wages. But as Walker tells it, this is the only way to get the state’s fiscal house in order “now—and in the future,” as he said during a televised address to Wisconsinites on February 22.

Teachers’ union representatives are willing—or at least say they’re willing—to concede the “now” part. But they want to preserve collective bargaining rights largely in order to protect themselves from reductions to their benefits in the future. Concessions are worth it in the short term if they help teachers preserve a defined benefit pension system found almost nowhere in the private sector and Cadillac health insurance plans.

So teachers are offering to accept Walker’s proposal that they contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pension (up from almost nothing) and pay about 12 percent for health insurance premiums (up from about 6 percent). That’s real money: about $4,000 before taxes for a teacher making $50,000 in base pay. But the increased contributions would still be only about half what a typical worker pays. With these two changes, Walker’s office projects school districts would save about $1 billion over two years—roughly the same amount by which the new budget will reduce state outlays to the schools.

If teachers are willing to make these concessions, why is it necessary to curtail collective bargaining? While Walker’s legislation would require all public employees, including teachers, to contribute more to the statewide pension program, its increase in health insurance premium payments does not apply to teachers unless implemented by school districts. The bill gets rid of collective bargaining for benefits in order to give the districts the option of increasing health insurance premium payments. 

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