Some Sane Commentary on Wisconsin

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 11, 2011

Via Will Wilkinson:

The state capitol in Madison has been thronged by indignant public-sector union supporters, which delayed final debate in the state assembly. In an appearance on MSBC, Tim Carpenter, a Democratic state senator called the Republican’s procedural tactics “our Pearl Harbor of workers’ rights”. In this era of paper thin electoral majorities, Governor Walker’s union-weakening reforms really do amount to the political equivalent of war. But if we allow ourselves a moment to step back from thoughts of partisan advantage, it’s clear that Wisconsin’s Republicans are merely bringing their state’s policy on public-sector unions in line with that of many other states and, indeed, the federal government. As Josh Barro, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, writes:

[D]espite the howls coming from the left, Wisconsin’s new policies on public-employee relations will not be especially unusual. Only 26 states have laws that grant collective-bargaining privileges to substantially all public employees. Twelve have laws that give collective bargaining to some workers, and twelve have no statewide collective-bargaining law at all, though some municipalities may grant bargaining rights in those states.

And as I have been pointing out until I get blue in the face, most federal civilian workers do engage in collective bargaining, but wages and benefits are excluded from that bargaining, rendering it very limited. Far from seeking to strengthen the hand of federal-employee unions, Barack Obama has sought to impose a two-year wage freeze on federal workers through the budget process. If the federal government had a bargaining law like the one Wisconsin has today, he would be unable to do that.

It is, I believe, good policy. Whether Governor Walker’s intransigence is good politics remains to be seen. I think Nelson Lichtenstein correctly captures the forces now at work in an interview with Ezra Klein:

When you change the structure of American politics, that will over time change public opinion. If these institutions are destroyed, public opinion will follow. Survey attitudes towards unions in the Mountain states and Southern states and you’ll find that unions are viewed less favorably than they are elsewhere. So over time, you can’t have a union revival without having some of these structures in place. So a governor like Walker is completely correct that it’s in his self-interest to ignore public opinion.

At the same time, he’s now in a race. This decline in institutional support won’t take place immediately. And in that window, there’s now an energized base that can easily throw him out and throw out some of these Republicans who voted with him. So the race is whether this energy can be mobilized and put to use fast enough.

Of course, all of this analysis will be ignored by those content to scream “KOCH BROTHERS!!!!!!” for every public policy development that does not go their way.

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