Daily Archives: February 19, 2011

Wisconsin…on the front lines….again

As the state where Gov. Robert LaFollette ushered in the Progressive movement in this country in the early 1900s, it appears that Wisconsin will become the flash point of the budget battle being waged on every level of government.  The first public employee labor union, AFSCME-American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees was founded in Wisconsin, so it seems only fitting that the first state to stand up to said union and all others would be the Badger State.

Let me be clear:  (who else says that?)  I do not oppose labor unions. I have never been a member of a labor union, but understand the role that they have played to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for the workers that they represent.    My opposition to them is the power that they have amassed over the years, many times to the detriment of the very people that they are supposedly organized to help.  In the past three days, the unionized teachers of the public schools, especially in Dane (Madison) and Milwaukee Counties, with help from OFA, Organize for America—the offshoot of the Obama 2008 campaign, and various other sympathetic groups marched on the state capitol.  They are protesting the newly elected Republican governor and state legislature’s attempt to limit their collective bargaining agreement and increase the amount that they contribute toward their health insurance and retirement.  

Interestingly enough, George Meany, former President of the AFL-CIO, stated in 1955:  “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”    The Heritage Foundation has a great article about this, pointing out that in 1959; Wisconsin was the first state to allow collective bargaining with public employees.


Adding to the intrigue of it all is the AWOL status of the Democratic members of the Wisconsin Senate. In a 19-14 split Senate, only one Democrat would have to be present to meet the 3/5ths quorum required to conduct business.  None of the Senate Democrats wanted to be the “one” to help make that quorum.  So, because of a quirky Wisconsin state law that allows Wisconsin State Police to bring legislators, who are in-state, to the Capitol to make a quorum what did they do?  Boarded a bus and headed for Rockford, IL.    Now nothing against Rockford, but why not Dubuque?

This video shot during the Madison protests shows the vitriol, anger, and downright hatred of these protestors against the legally elected Governor and Republican state legislators.  It is a great video because it shows the contrast of what the Democrats in the US Congress had to say about the Tea Party protestors for the past two years.  Ah…how quickly the tables turn.  Also, remind me again about civility in our rhetoric.     I can say with reasonable certainty that Sarah Palin is nowhere near this group in proximity or ideology.  So, this one is not her fault!

What is at stake here is not the future of the organized labor movement in the US.  It is virtually the future of our nation itself.  We have a staggering debt. In addition to the federal government,   states like California, Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York are teetering on bankruptcy.  My own home state of Missouri and adopted state of Iowa are not in good financial shape either.  The “kick the can” philosophy taken by our elected leaders, both Democrat and Republicans has put our nation and our states in the precarious position that we find ourselves in now.  We do not have a tax deficit, we have a spending surplus.  Cities, counties, states, and the federal government find themselves with balance sheets where the liabilities far exceed the assets.  Expenses outpace income. And one of the biggest liabilities every level of government has are because of the lucrative public employee compensation contracts as well as the public employee retirement systems. Public school teachers, firemen, police officers, public works employees are all a part of this system. 

Many years ago, when the salaries for public employees were not at the level that they are today, more generous benefit packages were offered.  In the state of Iowa, there is something called the rule of 88. It is age plus the years of service—and when added together for a total of 88, one is eligible for retirement.  Retirement benefits cannot be collected until one is age 55.  Because of this, we have many in their early 50s who have achieved the 88, then can retire.  And many come back to work for state or local governments as a private contractor—working full-time in the same job that they had with the government!  Only public school teachers are precluded from this arrangement.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy, vibrant 55-year-old who may still want to work. But what is wrong with the system, when in many cases we offer an incentive for early retirement only to have these same people back doing almost the same jobs they did while on the public payroll as private contractors?  And why the incentives?  Because over the years, governments began to think that in addition to the gold-plated benefits packages, they had to offer wage packages that mirrored the private sector.  In the state of Iowa alone, public sector salaries outpace private sector ones for similar positions.  Those receiving a paycheck from the taxpayer often time is making more than the taxpayer themselves! It all comes down to the power that the public employee unions have amassed.

For these  Wisconsin teachers and other state employees to call in sick, head to Madison, and protest against this, while is their right to do so, is it the right thing to do in these economic times?  And what kind of message does that send to students…that it is okay to lie about something if it is to do what one perceives as something for the greater good? Not so sure that is the message that we want to send. 

My Bachelor’s degree is in elementary education. I was an elementary school teacher in Missouri public schools for 18 years. I remember vividly that one of the professors I had as a senior in college told us that if we were planning to become wealthy as a public school teacher, that we needed to reconsider our major right then and there, because, he said, when you are dependent upon tax dollars for your wage, you will always be at the mercy of others who will make the decision about how much you are paid  who will be guided by the voters in telling them how much they were willing to be taxed. It will never be based upon your marketable skill but whether the taxpayers of the school district were in a generous mood on any given election day.

I signed my first teaching contract in 1975 for $7200.  Because the state legislature passed a funding increase for elementary and secondary education, by that fall, my salary had increased to $7500.   I am not saying that to begrudge any teacher in any school the wage that they are paid today.  Quite the contrary.  In a perfect world, our school teachers, nurses, police, fire, sheriffs, state patrol, and snow plow drivers, nurses, and care givers to the elderly would all earn what we pay our major league baseball, football, and basketball players.  And along with that the money that is spent to build the majestic palaces of play for them would be put toward schools, libraries, hospitals, long-term care facilities and infrastructure in our cities and states.  But alas, it is not a perfect world.

And it is not a perfect world for public employees now. State, city and county budgets are stretched to the max, and just like in business, personnel costs are the biggest portion of that budget.  When the taxpayers who are paying the taxes to pay the salaries are not getting raises, and for what I believe is almost 20% of the population of our country-do not have a job at all, public employees have to be willing to make the same sacrifices that others are making to get out of this economic black hole that we find ourselves in at this time.  

Another prime example is here in Iowa with the Department of Human Services.  Before leaving office in January, the outgoing {Democratic} Governor negotiated a new salary and benefits package with the state employees’ labor union.  Because of budget cuts, the current {Republican} Governor has stated that unless the DHS union employees will rescind that salary and benefits package, then 136 positions will be eliminated, and services at several of our mental health facilities will have to be cut back. To me this is a no-brainer.  Give it back to save your colleagues’ jobs and keep services!  But rather, a press release and in-house email went out about the big, bad Governor who was cutting jobs and services.  He is doing the only thing he can do. 

Compromise is not always pretty, but when it is the alternative to losing jobs then it has to be done.  Wisconsin is just the beginning.  New Jersey is fighting this battle and I expect more skirmishes as states continue to work to put their budgets together for the next fiscal year—with more red than black on the balance sheet.

So to the protestors:  rant, rave, protest, but do it on your own time. Get back into the classroom on Monday morning and teach your students a lesson in how the system works.  But be ready to realize that the system will only exist if everyone is willing to give some to get by until better times are here.

And for Madison, you may have just joined the ranks of Lexington, Concord, Fort Sumter, Gettysburg  and Shanksville as a place where the battle lines were drawn and an important stand was made by those willing to do the hard work.  It appears that you will be leading the way….again.


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