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Michael Swartz / March 3, 2011

The Lessons of Madison

Over the past few decades, a familiar mantra of those trying to expand government via the avenue of new programs and bureaucracies was the catchphrase, “it’s for the children.” Wisconsin unions may use that claim as well, but many little darlings and their parents were adversely affected by the labor strife in Madison when area school districts closed because teachers called in “sick.” Teachers played the role even to the point of receiving phony doctor’s excuses for stress-induced illnesses onsite.

But before we embark on a discussion of the lessons being taught by these Wisconsin events we need to review our own annals.

When we look back to the time periods just prior to our Revolutionary War, or immediately before the Civil War broke out, we believe those were exciting times to be alive due to the maelstrom of events we read about today. Yet our ancestors rarely knew the extent of what was going on unless they were directly involved or affected because news traveled slowly in those bygone days. Our awareness now is only more immediate because many of us have access to news from a variety of sources thanks to the internet. Still, in most cases, if we’re not directly affected by an event it’s not newsworthy or historical to us. It’s only after those who are interested sift through the records of the day that we have “history.”

And while there are pockets of the nation – particularly in large cities – where a large number of citizens are considered functionally illiterate, another key difference between eras is that schooling wasn’t made compulsory in most areas until after the Civil War. Unlike our forefathers, we have the knowledge necessary to obtain and act upon the information obtained by the more numerous and essentially instantaneous news gatherers. So it’s hard to argue against the premise that we’re living in a truly historic time seldom seen in our nation.

Having made the assertion we are living in a historical era, it’s time to ask: What lessons are we being taught? First and foremost, what those teachers involved are trying to instill in their pupils is that government is unfair when Republicans are in charge of it. As they tell the tale in Wisconsin, Governor Walker and other GOP leaders are trying to bust the unions, a move that would plunge the nation back into an era where child labor working seven days a week was common.

Yet a look at the proposed law debunks that notion. No union is decertified by the law; however, the onus will be on the union to remain as a bargaining unit in yearly elections. If teachers and other affected public employees in Wisconsin are happy with their representation they have every right to keep it in place by voting to re-certify. Certainly it’s true that the scope of negotiable items would be greatly reduced but they still maintain those rights.

What these teachers and other public employees aren’t telling the children is just as important. For example, each of them contributes hundreds of dollars a year to the union for the privilege of representation. While teachers complain about school districts forcing them to purchase supplies out of their meager salaries, it’s worthy to tell a child that the money contributed to unions could instead become the slush fund for those little items teachers always seem to need for the classroom rather than lining the campaign coffers of Democratic candidates, as much of the dues money does presently.

The second prime lesson isn’t being taught by the teachers, but by their Democratic allies in the Wisconsin State Senate. In the classroom, the elementary teacher constantly reminds students that they should play nicely, be fair to their classmates, and follow the school’s rules about respect towards their peers and accepting differences.

But if kids read between the lines, all the classroom talk about cooperation and following the rules is being tossed out the window by the actions of fourteen Democratic state senators in gumming up the works of the Wisconsin State Senate. These ‘cut-and-run’ legislators mimic the real-life example of the spite a first-grader exhibits when he or she doesn’t get his or her way. Shamefully, several teachers have used their students as part of the Madison protests, teaching them the lesson that rules and decorum are less important than the public sector unions maintaining political power.

The glaring omission in the Wisconsin union’s lesson plan, though, is that of basic economics. Perhaps young children can’t fathom the stratospheric numbers bandied about in budget discussions like millions and billions. But they surely understand that, when a new video game costs $150 and there’s only $20 in their piggy bank, they’re not going to get the prized possession unless they can somehow raise the money themselves or receive it as a gift. Good parents can instill the lesson in a child that things worth having are to be earned – they may not give them the additional money directly but through good behavior and doing the chores assigned the child may eventually get the video game as a gift once the funds are there for purchasing it.

Instead, Wisconsin unions are acting like the child who whines and begs Mom and Dad until they break down and buy the video game with their credit card. Unfortunately for them, Mom and Dad (also known as the taxpayers of Wisconsin) are at last deciding on some tough love – but there’s still the chance that the whining and begging may pay off in the end.

By standing strong, Governor Walker and Wisconsin Republicans can teach us all two valuable lessons: one, that government needs to live within its means without overburdening the taxpayers, and two, that elections have consequences. On a national scale we are still living with the consequences of the 2008 election, but at the state and Congressional levels 2010 was a course correction.

It’s the prospect of a hard right turn in 2012 which scares these hardline unions the most, and it will be up to the electorate to ignore their sobbing pleas and do the right thing by reining in their power.

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,, and Liberty Features Syndicate. Contact him at [email protected]

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