Michael Swartz / February 21, 2011

Madison: The Shape of Things to Come

Last May we saw violent political riots in Greece and last week a February of discontent began in Madison, Wisconsin. While the issues at the heart of the Wisconsin protest aren’t exactly identical to the austerity measures dictated to the Greek government as a condition of accepting a continent-wide financial bailout, they’re still all about spending money the government doesn’t have.

The Madison protest arose from a GOP bill which would both curtail the negotiable items in labor contracts and bring to heel the ability of public sector unions to continually collect dues by removing “closed shop” provisions for certain employees and mandating annual authorization elections – those provisions strike (no pun intended) at the heart of the Big Labor political machine. To stall the inevitable passage Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate took advantage of a rules loophole and left the state, leaving their Republican counterparts fuming but powerless to take action on the law. Considering these Democrats have been offered sanctuary by religious leaders in adjacent states, they could be gone awhile.

(It shows that elections mean things – had one more Republican been elected last fall to the Wisconsin Senate the GOP would have had the twenty Senators they need for a quorum and passed the bill over sure Democratic opposition.)

Needless to say, life in the Badger State has been turned upside down by these protests, which have resulted in a near-continuous occupation of the state capitol building by noisy union-backed mobs. In particular, those who send their kids to the public schools which shut down for most of last week as teachers called in “sick” to join the protest are upset at the changes in plans they had to make. Spending precious vacation days cooped up at home with the kids because school is shut down tends to promote a sour attitude in parents.

Over the next few weeks the unrest shows signs of spreading to Columbus, Indianapolis, and Nashville as those states also employ tactics to starve the union beast and bring future deficit spending on employee benefits and pensions under control. With the exception of Indiana, all of these states feature newly-installed Republican governors and state legislators with TEA Party-influenced conservatives. They see the bloated state payrolls and generous union contracts as target number one of a necessary austerity program to keep state budgets in balance.

Yet the unions are primed for a fight and they are getting assistance from the nation’s capital. Organizing For America – the front group originally conceived as part of the Obama campaign and now part of the Democratic National Committee – has people on the ground as part of the union protest. Their shrill tweets talk about student walkouts and beg lawmakers to “preserve the collective bargaining rights of (Wisconsin’s) public workers.” OFA spouts a lie in this case: Even under the proposed law workers will still have the right to organize; only the scope of negotiable items changes.

Leftists also see this protest as their answer to the TEA Party, and admittedly thus far it’s seen more success than the Coffee Party movement or Comedy Central’s Rally to Restore Sanity. Neither did much to deflect the electoral pounding that led to the precarious position Democrats and their union allies in Wisconsin and nationwide now stand upon.

But the track record of the GOP taking on the unions and government spending is mixed. In this latest confrontation Big Labor is again counting on Republicans and newly-elected Governor Scott Walker to blink first, just like the Gingrich-led Republicans in Congress did after the 1995 government shutdown. In fact, the events in Wisconsin could be seen as a state-level rehearsal for the prospect of a federal government shutdown once our borrowing limit is reached next month. You can be sure the Democrats and unions have a plan for that eventuality as well.

Walker and Wisconsin Republicans have drawn a line in the sand as their state faces a massive budget deficit. Perhaps they may relent somewhat on the rules about limiting the influence of the unions by keeping the public sector a “closed shop” and tinker with the percentages workers need to contribute to their health insurance and pensions, but the state which was the first to legalize public sector unions back in 1959 may be the most successful in taking them on if they can somehow pass this bill. Like California and other states have shown, allowing unions free rein during good times and bad has placed state finances at the point of no return.

If there were a time to break the back of the public sector unions once and for all, this may be it. Workers should be free to organize for collective bargaining, but the current system is unsustainable and only enriches the union leadership and a party long out of touch with the American people it claims to represent.

Stand strong, Governor Walker.

Writing from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Michael Swartz is a freelance writer and blogger whose home site is monoblogue. He has written for, among others, Pajamas Media, Examiner.com, and Liberty Features Syndicate. Contact him at [email protected]

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