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Wisconsin says a lot about our political discourse, none of it good.
President Barack Obama quickly sided with the unions. House Speaker John Boehner cast his lot with Gov. Scott Walker. On Fox News, the unions are excoriated amid footage of doctors giving written excuses to teachers who miss work. On MSNBC, Ed Schultz flexes his working-man beer muscles, while the cameras ignore the most vitriolic of protest signs.
Complex issues are reduced to sound bites. Talking points of the extreme left and right dominate. Americans obediently fall into line, either for “free enterprise” or the “working man,” even if they don’t know what the phrase collective bargaining means.
Lost in that din are some middle-of-the-road realities:
State governments must remedy a collective budget deficit of $175 billion through 2013. Their financial demons are largely pension and health-care costs. In Wisconsin, Gov. Walker needs to address a budget deficit of $137 million by June 30.
That the balance scale has been tilted toward unions seems hard to contradict.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among state workers, union members’ median weekly earnings last year were nearly 17 percent higher than their nonunion peers ($922 compared with $769). The chasm increased among local government employees, where union member wages were higher by 23 percent. Additionally, unionized government workers are more likely to be covered by a defined-benefit pension plan than their private-sector counterparts.
Over the years, many of those benefits have been won by unions through collective bargaining, a voluntary negotiation between differing sides in a contract dispute covering a variety of issues, including pay, conditions, training, safety, and how grievances will be resolved. Walker seeks to end collective bargaining for state workers on all but wages. And to close his state’s projected budget deficit, he is proposing that public workers pay roughly 6 percent of their wages toward pension costs and increase their health-care contributions from 6 percent to 12 percent. The union is prepared to make financial concessions so long as the governor will end his collective-bargaining demand. He refuses. And that’s where lines are drawn.
But wait a minute.
Collective bargaining itself doesn’t determine the outcome. Union representatives weren’t at the table alone — they negotiated with government representatives. If those representatives gave away the store, then castigate them, but don’t blame the collective-bargaining process.
The lawyer in me sees an analogy between collective bargaining and two sides involved in a legal dispute. In both cases, representation is important to an outcome, and it’s essential for each side to have the ability to effectively argue its position. But in the end, no one lawyer alone determines the verdict.
What channel can I turn to and hear that?
William Rodgers is a former chief economist for the Department of Labor and now a professor at Rutgers University. He agrees with my assessment, noting his own involvement in two cases — an arbitration suit brought against a Philip Morris plant in Richmond, Va., and a wholesale grocer’s decision to close a distribution plant in Woodbridge, N.J. — in which union interests were represented and ultimately turned down.
“It’s a two-way street, and everybody is a stakeholder in this, and everybody needs to be accountable,” Rodgers told me.
He also noted that in New Jersey, both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for sweetening public-sector unions’ pension and benefits deals.
Unfortunately, the media coverage of the frenzied atmosphere in Wisconsin has failed to provide similar insight into who should be held accountable for unsustainable financial promises. Instead, the pro-union (or anti-free enterprise, depending on your perspective) and pro-Walker (anti-working class) forces line up dutifully on the appropriate side of the ideological aisle.
It makes for compelling political theater ... and little else.
“This is just a trend we’re seeing,” Rodgers told me, “where in crisis, many people unfortunately try to advance their ideological agenda or priorities.”
Which is unfortunate, because what Wisconsin and the country really need is a sober assessment of what has caused many states, as well as the federal government, to be so fiscally unhealthy. There needs to be less political drama and more thought about how to make future agreements workable for states, their employees, and the taxpayers.
• Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.