In Wisconsin, under the backdrop of the broader national movement to cut government spending, controversial austerity measures have come to deeply divide the state, and the country, as a whole. Republican Governor Scott Walker is fulfilling campaign promises to combat public sector unions by forcing them to contribute to their own pensions and essentially eliminating their collective bargaining rights. Faced with the certainty of a losing vote, some minority State Legislature Democrats have fled Wisconsin to prevent the quorum necessary to vote. Although neither side shows a willingness to back down, this crisis serves to expose the hypocrisy of Democrats, whose stubborn actions cast a shadow of illegitimacy over Wisconsin politics. Walker is doing the right thing; from a fiscal and political perspective, government unions are a burden on the United States.
Wisconsin Democrats are clearly acting in a ridiculous fashion. Rather than take a principled public stand on an issue, even in the face of certain immediate failure, the Democrats have refused to participate in the legislative system at all and instead have gone into hiding. Those admiring this kind of protest might as well admire a frustrated child who walks out on a game, taking the ball home with him. Preventing any debate or vote is patently undemocratic and cowardly. It is interesting that, after two years of complaining about Republican obstructionism in Congress, liberals are willing to applaud it in its most flagrant form. These are the same people who whined that reading the Constitution was wasting Congress’s time, and that it’s the Republicans who want to shut down government.
The protests themselves have been similarly disappointing and hypocritical. Left-wing groups long reviled the tea party for their supposedly inflammatory rhetoric. In these protests, however, we have seen Walker compared with Mubarak, Qaddafi and, the favorite slur against nasty old conservatives, Hitler. A movement can only be described as self-righteous when it compares its protests for bloated union benefits with genuine democratic revolutions in the Middle East. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) went so far as to tell unions that they were justified in getting “bloody” over the controversy.
Of course, one can hardly say that protests are a bad thing. Everybody is entitled to free political speech, and one shouldn’t generalize the words of a few with the intentions of the whole. It is reasonable, however, to take issue with the most active participants in the Wisconsin’s protests: state employees, especially teachers. After calling in sick en masse, teachers have forced schools to close and state affairs have grinded to a halt.
Even more despicable, teacher attendances at the rallies rely in large part on the use of forged doctors’ notes to whoever wants to join in the protests. This obviously constitutes fraud on an alarmingly large scale, which groups such as the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons have condemned. This of course begs the question: By fighting so viciously, and dishonestly, to maintain their collective bargaining rights, have public sector employees and their political supporters managed to demonstrate why such rights are a bad idea to begin with?
The primary justification for Walker’s anti-union agenda is fiscal restraint. Wisconsin has been suffering from a debt problem for years, and it has been worsened by the recession. Asking state employees to contribute to their pensions, a weight they currently don’t carry, is simply one way of addressing the budget shortfalls.
From a political point of view, Walker’s fight against public sector unions makes sense regardless of the fiscal situation. State employees rely on taxpayers, who see reductions in their own income to pay these workers’ salaries. As such, state employees are public servants; those who fund them are entitled to the services they pay for. To give public servants the ability to strike, disrupt government operations and deny taxpayers those services, is immoral and does the public a great disservice. Recall the air traffic controllers’ strike under President Reagan, which threatened to cripple the airline industry and national transportation infrastructure. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt considered the idea of public employees striking absurd.
Why should we preserve collective bargaining rights for public servants just so they can continue holding us hostage whenever politicians dare to threaten their excessive benefits? Indeed, they are striking in order to maintain relatively luxurious conditions. Currently a full-time state employee in Wisconsin makes about $70,000 in pay and benefits, about $15,000 more than the average private-sector employee. Doesn’t it seem unreasonable that state employees make more than the people who pay them? They contribute nothing to their pensions, and are being asked to contribute only five percent of their incomes, yet rather than accept this modest proposal, they create a political spectacle.
Taking a stand against public sector unions will be better in the long run for both Wisconsin and the country as just one step on the road to fiscal strength. Walker is correct in holding firm against them, and time is on his side. Like Reagan and FDR, Walker must not allow himself to be bullied by unions or illegitimate political tactics.
Joe Albanese is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service.