I don’t live in Wisconsin, but I’m close… a block and a half south of the state line and I regularly read a Wisconsin newspaper and listen to Wisconsin Public Radio. Like most everyone else, I receive a constant barrage of sound bites, call-in programs, posts and tweets about what is going on in Madison.
I tend to think in terms of principles and I want to look at this conflict in those terms. Here goes.
Leadership. Leaders who lead, make enemies. They also make some friends. But leaders make decisions and when you decide things, some people will get mad at you. If you defer difficult issues, they develop into almost insurmountable problems. Most of our governmental leaders have not had enough courage to confront issues that will jeopardize their chances for re-election. Officials, at all levels of governments seem to spend a lot time trying to close the barn door after the cows have escaped. It is the Governor’s job to balance the state budget and that has grown into a huge challenge because of a difficult economy and historically poor leadership.
Sustainability. Many of our practices are no longer sustainable. The way we treat our environment is not sustainable. Some aspects of the average American lifestyle are not sustainable. Some government programs are not sustainable. Changes are in store.
Reaction. This closely relates to the previous point. When you give something to people, it is not going to set well if you try to take it back. We need to be really careful about what we give people that causes them to be dependent, because it will really hurt if it has to be taken away. If you lower someone’s salary or decrease their benefits, they will not like it.
Rights. It seems like everyone has all kinds of rights to all kinds of things. The “right” in jeopardy among public workers in Wisconsin is the right to collective bargaining. This is a “right” that 6.9% of workers in the private sector and 36.2% of the workers in the public sector have. So, I am guessing that is less than 10% of the total American workforce that has this “right.” If it is a right, then 90% of the American workforce is getting shafted and they are the ones who should be revolting. It is not a right. It is a privilege, a privilege that most Americans do not have. In Wisconsin, public workers legally have the option to organize for collective bargaining, but those who take a job in a unionized company or profession, have no choice, but to join the union. So, legally, it is an option, but very few workers throughout the entire nation have chosen this option, if it is legally available. This reality has created huge dichotomy in the American workforce.
Inequity. All my life, I was told how great it was to get a job with a company whose workers are unionized, with one of the American auto manufacturers, or with the state. Now, many of those unionized plants are shuttered, two of the three auto manufacturers went bankrupt, and states cannot pay their bills. Is there a connection? They could no longer afford to pay the wages and benefits to which their workers had become accustomed.
Negotiation. Now you are going to think I have switched sides. Negotiation is the only peaceful way to move a group of people together into the future. It’s a long, messy, drawn-out process, but it shows mutual respect. It seems like that part of the leadership process is missing in Wisconsin. I am not up on the legislative process there, but there could be more of a forum for debate and compromise within the state legislature, with public hearings, and/or with union officials.
Tactics. It seems really silly for Wisconsin lawmakers to flee the state. They work for the residents and at their privilege. These tactics are childish and unacceptable. However, every time one political party takes over from the other, they do their very best to stick it to the minority party with minimal negotiation, simply because they have the votes. Then their legislation gets rammed down the throats of the populace. Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame. Therefore, we have a schizoid government with wild mood swings, like it is stuck in perpetual menopause. Teachers cutting class to chant in the statehouse is another really bad idea that caused schools all over the state to be closed for days. These lawmakers and teachers are public employees showing disrespect for their employers (Wisconsin taxpayers) by being paid to hang out at restaurants and hotels in Illinois or demonstrate in the state capital, and they are doing this in a time of 9% unemployment nationally.
Power. What is the fight really about? It’s about power. Workers have had it. Some in state government in Wisconsin believe it is not sustainable for them to continue to wield that kind of power and have that kind of influence. They believe they can no longer pay the kind of wages and benefits that will be demanded and they believe that local school districts are no more able than they are to do so. Power is never easily surrendered.
Micro. My daughter is a teacher in neighboring Minnesota and her husband works for The University of Minnesota. They are worried. They are good people, good employees, and I love them. I certainly do not want to see their wages or benefits reduced or frozen. Who would? Unfortunately, there is also the big picture that has to be dealt with, including all of the realities that I have discussed here.
Originally posted February 23, 2011.