Point • Counter-point: Wisconsin labour crisis
For almost a month the state senate of Wisconsin was paralyzed and unable to go ahead with budget cuts proposed by Governor Scott Walker. While as Canadians we may be used to politicians’ petty bickering, in Wisconsin state senators took it to the next level.
With the state facing an estimated $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next few years, members of both state legislatures were asked by the governor to support a bill that would see most state workers having to put more of their wages into the state health and pension plans. Hoping to stall the bill’s controversial clauses fourteen democrats decided to flee the state and deny quorum.
The remarkable thing is that while there has been some criticism in the media about the actions of the senators and the budget cuts proposed, the overwhelming coverage has been regarding other clauses in the budget bill. Allowing for voluntary union membership and removing state workers right to collective bargaining for anything other than wages have been the two controversial aspects of this budget repair bill.
Walker is only doing what needs to be done so that local governments stand a chance at fairly negotiating with their employees. Yes he is mandating fewer benefits for public-sector workers, but reducing the threat of unions collectively bargaining for obscene benefits in the future is what is best for the long term fiscal prospects of the state.
Presently, the largest age groups in Wisconsin are the 45–49 and 50-54 age brackets, meaning that in the next ten years more Wisconsin public-sector employees will be retiring than ever before. This will mean even more people will be reliant on the state’s pension and health plans.
It also means that in the future there will be more pressure on the future public employees and taxpayers of the state in paying for this. Walker is taking the kind of long- term action that more politicians need to take. Pension funds should not be freely handed to public workers, nor should health plans be so heavily subsidized.
Of course short-term minded critics have failed to look over this aspect of the debate. Since the controversial aspects of his budget repair bill first made the news Walker has been unfairly bombarded by political pundits nationwide, with even the president chiming in on the debate.
Obama’s involvement in this state matter shows just how much of a union hack he is.
Until he gets his own fiscal house in order, if ever, he should keep his criticism to himself.
Others in the media have found other absurd ways of describing Scott Walker’s plans. Centrist and left-wing media outlets see these changes as an attack on the working class, even if the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Public sector employees do not need compulsory unions or collective bargaining rights. If FBI agents only have a voluntary union, why not state teachers? In Wisconsin workers earn $1,800 more each year in wages and benefits than their private sector counterparts. They aren’t struggling to get by.
Despite the solidarity nonsense being chanted by pundits like Michael Moore we are not talking about the union’s rights created to protect factory workers from unsafe conditions. Just because your job requires you to work for long hours doesn’t mean you need to be part of a union.
These cuts have already allowed the state to lower its business taxes, which will hopefully allow more businesses to hire workers and improve the economy.
And at the very least making union membership voluntary will allow workers to make their own decision on the need for public sector unions in the 21st century. For a country founded on the principle of liberty for all it’s the least the state can do for its workers.
Lately the newswire has been inundated with the topic of protest: Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Wisconsin. Although what seems like an anomaly, the battle over the bill to abolish collective bargaining rights for public sector employees is actually working out to be a significant turning point in the state’s legislative history.
Democrats, Republicans and public union employees are all being squeezed into a big room where everyone’s voice needs to be heard. The importance of labour unions, bargaining rights and pensions are all brought to the table, and the governor is trying to satisfy all parties while balancing the budget.
The bill ended up being passed on Mar. 10; the most controversial part of the bill, the removal of collective bargaining rights, was separated from the main budget bill to ensure passage in light of the absence of Democratic lawmakers.
Fiscally speaking it seems that the benefit cuts make sense, or rather that these cuts will save the state billions of dollars in the long run. I do agree that this will reduce the state deficit. With the average income tax rate sitting at 6.6 per cent, almost a full per cent higher than New York, raising taxes in Wisconsin would have been ill favoured for the governor. I do not agree, however, with the elimination of collective bargaining rights.
Unions are necessary to protect the workers’ interests over those of the corporation. In this case, the corporation is the government and the pay is coming out of the taxpayer’s pocket. It is understandable then that the government faces this amount of resistance when changes need to be made to ensure that both taxpayers’ and the workers’ interests are considered.
Workers need to be paid well and treated fairly and taxpayers need responsible government spending. The problem is that the unions seem to be so caught up in their own sense of equality and fairness that they forget that the taxpayers’ interests should also be upheld. There is selfishness from the unions, and selfishness from the government. The taxpayer is caught in between.
As sacrifices will be made on both sides, the potential loss of collective bargaining rights still doesn’t seem like it has any purpose. This is a fundamental right of unions and taking it away seems uncalled for given concessions the unions made.
Since rights aren’t numbers that can be tacked on a balance sheet, Governor Walker has essentially eliminated the union voice from the equation.
They have no choice but to accept these new changes and whatever more may come. Collective bargaining rights need to be kept — to abandon this most fundamental right will lead the state and those who follow its example down a slippery slope to neglect the interests of workers.