Before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became a recall target for his efforts to reform collective bargaining in his state, I was a guest on a Madison radio show discussing the influence of public-sector unions and the significance of the state's unfunded pension liabilities.
Instead of "Wisconsin Nice"—the reference to the polite, conflict-avoiding nature of Badger State culture—I faced a torrent of angry callers who accused union critics of trying to destroy the quality of life for working people. I asked one caller: What do we do about unfunded liabilities, those debts that current pension promises place on future generations? "I won't answer your question," he said, refusing to dignify this perfectly reasonable question with a response.
The radio show was a preview of what was to come in Wisconsin—a season of angry diatribes, militant union marches, not-so-nice attacks on a governor who, after all, has done nothing more than reform a debt-laden system and has actually saved union jobs and saved unions. Rather than engage the issues, the left has chosen to echo the approach taken by callers to that radio show—stomp their feet, yell, and scream and absolutely, positively refuse to provide an alternative path.
There's something bizarre in all this, a reminder that the once-proud movement of working people has morphed into an upper-middle-class movement of coddled public employees who do not care about debt levels and eroded public services. They have their gold-plated pensions and no one better touch them or else.
Progressives used to pride themselves on their desire to help the poor, but in Wisconsin these days they'd rather throw the poor under the bus—a public bus, of course, with a union driver—to protect the relatively wealthy class of workers who administer government programs. So we've watched the antics—legislative Democrats heading to Illinois to deny the governor a quorum for his budget vote; truckloads of union activists and boatloads of union money pouring into the state capital; attempts to portray Walker as someone who is destroying the state.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the recall. Wisconsin's economy is rebounding, its debt receding. The state is gaining jobs everywhere except in downtrodden Milwaukee, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett serves as mayor, and where union control has its tightest grip. At this late stage in the race, it's purely a numbers game as both sides bring out the ground troops to get their voters to the polls. Democrats will surely resurrect dead voters in Milwaukee, so I'm hoping that Walker's margin of victory—polls show his lead at 5 to 7 points – is strong enough to exceed the expected margin of voter fraud.
Both sides are being careful, avoiding anything that might backfire. For the pro-recall movement, that means desperately avoiding the central issue. For instance, the Barrett campaign Web site features a story on Walker's supposed attack on hunting—yes, hunting—because of a privatization effort he is spearheading. The Walker Web site isn't too much better, as it focuses on crime problems in Milwaukee.
Many national pundits are focusing on the implications for the national presidential race, and on President Obama's chances of being re-elected. There are some clues in it, as national Democrats steadfastly avoid the state. But we all know that the Walker recall is a referendum on public-sector union reform.
One of the nation's biggest problems surrounds public employees, their compensation levels, and the degree to which their special privileges and demands are destroying public services and bankrupting cities, especially in my home state of California. Wisconsin is arguably an even more progressive state than California. It was the first state to allow public-sector workers to turn into the equivalent of Teamsters. But California has taken the matter much further than anywhere else in the nation.
California used to be the model for the nation in terms of its provision of public services. But without political competition there has been no push back as the unions grab more and more. No wonder the Golden State's roads are crumbling and our services are tarnished. The only answer from the union movement and their Democratic patrons, including the current governor: higher taxes. The real question is whether Wisconsin voters want their state to turn into California but without the warm winters.
In particular, the Wisconsin governor recognized that collective bargaining is the core problem, in that it remains the key obstacle to improving public services through competition and truly progressive reform.
"The collective-bargaining component of Walker's plan has yielded especially large financial dividends for school districts," wrote Christian Schneider, of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, in City Journal magazine. Individual districts have saved millions of dollars because they can send their plans out to bid rather than buy it from the union-monopoly health trust. That's money they used to save teaching jobs. Progressives should applaud, but instead they march on Madison. What phonies they are.
While California's government is hopeless, we are seeing serious local reforms often spearheaded by progressive Democrats. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed is promoting a pension reform initiative on Tuesday, and he's doing so with support from progressives in his city. Reed says there's a big difference between union Democrats and progressive Democrats. The former are protecting one special interest group and the latter have the public good in mind. It's a compelling argument as we head into the final days of the Wisconsin recall.
If Walker wins, reform will spread across the country. If he loses, Wisconsin will head down the path of California or maybe even Greece, where rising debt, soaring taxes, a surly union movement, and crumbling public services will be the order of the day. No wonder the recall
movement wants to play on emotion rather than answer serious questions.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento.