Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wisconsin's Workers Are the Big Cheese!

I've spent a good bit of time this week looking to Wisconsin. Today is the day the State Capitol is supposed to shut down to allow crews to clean the building - we'll have to see if that happens and how the protesters leave the building and grounds. So far, everything's been calm and peaceful (well, aside from the incessant drum circles) and that should continue. (Side note: it's amazing how well-spelled and grammatically-correct the protest signs of outraged teachers are, isn't it?)

While I appreciate that there are multiple points of view on this issue, here's mine. It's my blog, after all.

Gov. Walker is overplaying his hand.

He had a valid point with his "5/12" plan, which required public sector employees to pay just over 5% into their eventual pensions and 12% into their health care premiums. Times are beyond tight and everyone has to do their share. The unions agreed to these points, at which time the protests and posturing should have ended. But no. Gov. Walker wants to strip away the collective bargaining rights of the unions (well, most of them - more of that in a moment) for all issues other than wages and salaries. In other words - benefits, working conditions, retirement pensions - all of those could now be unilaterally determined by the legislature, rather than going through the collective bargaining process.

"Most of them" - get this. Governor Walker's plan exempts local police, firefighters, and state troopers from the collective bargaining segment. In other words, they can continue to negotiate as a block. Now, I'm all in favor of cops and firefighters, but two interesting things crop up here. One: these are the three unions that overwhelmingly supported Walker's election campaign and two: these unions are overwhelmingly male. So you snowplow drivers - out in the cold. You mostly female teachers - to the back of the class.

Something smells in Wisconsin and I don't think it's the cheese.

Look, I'm based in North Carolina, which is the least unionized state in the country. I also work for the "public sector." I pay 8% into my eventual retirement and have no say-so in that. Currently, I do not pay toward my health care premiums, but that is likely to change this year. I also have no collective bargaining rights and haven't since 1959, when a combination of the Red Scare and the first hints of the civil rights movement made the politicians in Raleigh antsy about anything that had the word "collective."

And enough with the rhetoric about "feeding from the public trough." Public employees pay taxes, too, you know. And, contrary to what some are saying, you don't get rich in this profession. In fact, North Carolina ranks 15th out of the 15 Southeastern states in what it pays those who choose to work in my public service job. Wonder why? In part, at least, due to the lack of collective bargaining and its ability to bring pressure to bear.

Now, don't mistake me. I love North Carolina and I'm happy here - but let's set the record straight. We're a "right to work" state (often sarcastically called a "right to work for less" state) - we're very pro-business and (in part) that means very anti-union. For decades, this worked for us (sort of). We attracted many, many, many manufacturing businesses due to our low costs. Then they found out that Mexico and China were even cheaper. Businesses exist to make money for their investors - bottom line. We did it to the Northeast ("hee, hee, hee, those slobs weren't competitive enough, come on down!") and certain chickens have come home to roost on those issues. We let private businesses run free and while that resulted in hard jobs that paid a decent living wage, it also resulted in the Gastonia Firestone strike, the infamous Hamlet chicken plant fire, and a hell of a lot of empty shells of textile and furniture mills.

Unions have brought about a mandatory minimum wage, the end of child labor, workplace safety standards, and the 40-hour work week, to name a few benefits. Are there union abuses? Sure. Are there corporate abuses? Sure. Guess who gets the bailout?

Go, Wisconsin.