This week closes the third week of the stalemate in Wisconsin, without a vote on Gov. Scott Walker's bill to limit collective bargaining by state public employee unions in order to solve the state budget crisis. The governor announced yesterday that 1,500 state employees would be laid off unless Democratic legislators returned to the state for a vote. The governor's new budget, unveiled this week, is a start at getting things back on track, if only the legislature could vote on it and avoid layoffs. But 14 Democratic state legislators are holed up at a hotel with a water park just over the state line in Illinois. Really? A water park?
The fact that so many elected officials would seek cover near a slip-and-slide says to me that they don't have much faith in their cause. And the fact that the Democrats are willing to let those workers lose their jobs tells me they don't really have the workers' best interests at heart. If those legislators truly believe that the cause of unions in modern America is right and just, why won't they stand in the rostrum of the legislature and defend the idea? Most people think there are some things worth fighting for in life, but apparently these guys don't. If they did, they'd be on the job. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should public sector workers have collective bargaining rights?]
(Let me just point out that if, during the 2009 Obamacare vote, the House Republicans had done the same thing and crossed over the Canadian border to hang out at a ski lodge in Montreal instead of voting, the outrage from the left would have been deafening. Why is it okay to get paid taxpayer money and not work? Don't most workers get fired for dereliction of duty if they leave the state in order to avoid doing their job?)
As for Americans outside of Wisconsin, they're watching and learning. People are starting to figure out that in state after state, taxes are becoming more and more unaffordable, in return for a small portion of the populace having guaranteed job security—something that most private sector employees don't enjoy. I think we can all agree that public employees should receive pensions, but most folks probably also think public employees should contribute a reasonable amount to their pensions—like the rest of us do. And we certainly think those pensions should have been funded all these years, so that the minority of Americans who still pay taxes don't have to make up the difference with massive tax increases. [See photos of the Wisconsin protests.]
Maybe people see what Kevin Williamson of the National Review sees in this week's must-read: that this isn't just about the recession or collective bargaining, which more states are likewise moving to limit (The Ohio state Senate voted to do so this week, for example). Williamson points out that "many of our states are facing fiscal crises now and in the future for reasons not related to the recent recession. Beyond the looming crisis in Medicaid, the most troublesome factors for many states are union pensions and retiree healthcare benefits, which are carrying unfunded liabilities estimated to run as high as $3 trillion." Some voters may be unfamiliar with the term "unfunded liability," but everyone understands an empty promise. And no one likes one.
The Gallup organization has been polling Americans for 50 years on whether they approve or disapprove of unions, and over the last half-century, it's been a long downward slide of declining public support. I can't say I'm surprised. I think people are starting to wise up to what's been going on for decades, and they're not happy.
The problem is bigger than just limiting collective bargaining—this is a fight about more than just back-room, one-size-fits-all solutions to our toughest fiscal challenges. It's about transparency, accountability, and what's best for everyone. It's about who's really in charge in our democracy.
In an era when it seems like the government just keeps getting bigger and bigger, unionized government workers just keep pushing for higher pay, more government spending, and guaranteed jobs while taxpayers keep struggling to pay for it all. But the rules are starting to change, and it's about time.