Ezra Klein: Unions not to blame for Wisconsin woes

Let’s be clear: Whatever fiscal problems Wisconsin is — or is not — facing at the moment, they’re not caused by labor unions. That’s also true for New Jersey, for Ohio and for the other states. There was no sharp rise in public workers’ wages in 2006 and 2007, no major reforms of the country’s labor laws, no dramatic change in how unions organize. And yet state budgets collapsed. Revenues plummeted. Taxes had to go up, and spending had to go down, all across the country.

Blame the banks. Blame global capital flows. Blame lax regulation of Wall Street. Blame home buyers, or home sellers. But don’t blame the unions. Not for this recession.

Of course, the fact that public employee pensions didn’t cause a meltdown at Lehman Brothers doesn’t mean they’re not stressing state budgets. But the buildup of global capital that overheated the American housing sector and got packaged into seemingly riskless financial products that then brought down Wall Street, paralyzing the economy, throwing millions out of work, and destroying state revenues even as state residents needed more social services? The answer to that is not to end collective bargaining for public employees. A plus B plus C does not equal what Gov. Scott Walker is attempting in Wisconsin.

In fact, it particularly doesn’t work for what Walker is attempting in Wisconsin. The Badger State was actually in pretty good shape. It was supposed to end this budget cycle with about $120 million in the bank. Instead, it’s facing a deficit. Why? The governor signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health care policy that lowers overall tax revenues. The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit. Now public workers are being asked to pick up the tab.

But even that’s not the full story here. Public employees aren’t being asked to make a one-time payment. Rather, Walker is proposing to sharply curtail their right to bargain collectively. A cyclical downturn that isn’t their fault, plus an unexpected reversal in Wisconsin’s budget picture that wasn’t their doing, is being used to permanently end their ability to negotiate with their employer what their health insurance should look like.

That’s how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public employee unions, a group much loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular.

If you read Walker’s State of the State address, you can watch him hide the ball on what he’s doing. “Our upcoming budget is built on the premise that we must right-size our government,” he said. “That means reforming public employee benefits — as well as reforming entitlement programs and reforming the state’s relationship with local governments.” Not a word on his actual proposal, which is to end collective bargaining for benefits.

If all Walker was doing was reforming public employee benefits, I’d have little problem with it. There’s too much deferred compensation in public employee packages, and though the blame for that structure lies partially with the government officials and state residents who wanted to pay later for services now, it’s true that situations change and unsustainable commitments require reforms. But that’s not what Walker is doing. He’s attacking the right to bargain collectively — he’s attacking the very foundation of labor unions — and using an economic crisis unions didn’t cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create, to justify it.

And it’s not as if public employees aren’t hurting. In the Wisconsin budget report I quoted earlier, the state’s fiscal bureau goes on to survey the state of the economy. “Going forward, Global Insight expects private sector payrolls to grow by 2.1 million in 2011, 2.6 million in 2012, and 2.5 million in 2013. Projected cutbacks in the number of public sector employees, however, are expected to partially offset those private sector gains. In 2010, the number of state and local government employees fell by an estimated 208,000 positions. In 2011, those cutbacks are expected to total an additional 150,000 positions.”

In other words, private jobs are coming back, but state and local jobs are still being lost. Public employee unions are on the mat. Walker is trying to make sure they don’t get back up.


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