Pensions

Wisconsin: the New Name for Excitement

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At left, the value of a public school education is demonstrated.

Badger State Fever is spreading across the Midwest and all the way back to the original home of public pension peccadilloes.

Almost a thousand demonstrators turned out in Sacramento yesterday, only to find the capital hamstrung by a shortage of Republicans.

Government employee unions in California don't have as clear a target as their counterparts in the Wisconsin, but their fiscal situation isn't very different. The state needs to close a gaping deficit, and there is broad popular and political agreement that fat union contracts for government employees are, at best, not helping the situation.

In California, Democrats control both legislative houses by wide majorities and have a popular governor with a strong voter mandate. Yet the problem for public unions is the same. There just aren't enough mouth-breathing, phone-pwned Republicans to blame for it.

This is why the pension crisis is really a split within the Democratic coalition, which only looks like a Democrat/Republican issue. The container ships full of money you would need to solve (or even to keep ignoring) the problem just don't exist. You can put either party in charge, but nobody can make state budgets work without cutting compensation of government employees.

Gov. Jerry Brown was clear on this issue during the campaign, less so since taking office. But he is running out of time. From their spider holes in Orange County, Republican dead enders are upping the pressure on a governor whose campaign was largely bankrolled by organized labor. Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) has introduced a Wisconsin-type bill that would end collective bargaining by government employees. "Public sector unions have been a 50-year mistake," writes Jonah Goldberg, the most popular opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times, who searches in vain for inspiring Joe Hill-type tales from the history of public labor organizing:

Do you recall the Great DMV cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair's famous schoolhouse sequel to "The Jungle"? No? Don't feel bad, because no such horror stories exist.

Government workers were making good salaries in 1962 when President Kennedy lifted, by executive order (so much for democracy), the federal ban on government unions. Civil service regulations and similar laws had guaranteed good working conditions for generations.

A Gallup/USA Today poll shows widespread opposition to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's plan to nix collective bargaining:

According to the survey, 61 percent of adults across the country oppose Walker plan to strip public workers of their rights (maybe people are stuck on that word—"rights," as in something that can't be taken away by fiat). Drilling down a bit, not only do Democrats oppose the idea overwhelmingly (18 percent in favor, 78 percent oppose), but independents line up against the idea by a 2-to-1 margin (31-62). Only Republicans like it, and that by a relatively close margin (54-41). This is the second poll released this week showing that Walker's idea is unpopular.

Zogby, on the other hand, shows Americans pretty blithe about the prospect of just ripping up signed contracts:

Two-thirds of likely voters agree that state legislatures have the authority to cut state employee salaries and 52% agree they can void collective bargaining agreements to reduce spending.

Voiding collective bargaining agreements is also seen as preferable to continuing to pay state employees at current levels or layoffs of state workers in order to reduce spending and control deficits.

I'm beginning to think people who answer polls are not like me. It seems to me there's an obvious conflict of interest in having government employees use union leverage against taxpayers. It also seems like bad medicine to just up and void a contract that, no matter how bad it is, was signed by both sides. Yet here are the American people, ready to do both.

I don't think that can last. The political fight is only a distraction. There's an essential contradiction in public sector unionization, and it becomes more clear as the state budget crisis goes on.