February 22, 2011
Unionized Public Servants Meet Their Enemy
Public servants who think themselves wronged by their government have been demonstrating for days in Madison, Wisconsin. Their march for fair treatment in the budget battles and contract negotiations to follow is intended to evoke sympathy, but is it merited?
Such a thing has happened before. In the summer of 1786, Captain Daniel Shays led a revolt of his fellow Revolutionary War veterans in Massachusetts. His compatriots were losing their homes to foreclosure, after having served their country, after enduring the frost at Valley Forge, the shelling at New York, the disease and malnutrition of an ill-equipped army's eight-year campaign against the British Empire. These veterans could not pay their bills, due to the default of their previous employers: the governments of the United States had, in many cases, never paid them a cent for their service.
Shays' Rebellion and its less famous cousins across the country owned the moral high ground in the mid-1780s. Government had mistreated its veterans, and drastic changes were needed to correct the matter. This led to the Constitutional Convention, to the reform of not only our military payment system, but of our government, and our very economic system itself, so that our government would never again make promises it could not keep.
The prayer of today's government employees is that they can claim that same sympathy, that they can convince an overtaxed public that these already well-paid public servants should be immune from the cuts in future benefits that the rest of us have had to accept as our modern economy has changed.
After the turbulence of the 1780s, the new government, scared straight about its role, remained responsible throughout the Nineteenth Century, but things changed in the Twentieth. New taxes and new expenditures, new government departments and new ideas about guaranteed pensions and benefits, safety nets and hammocks, all combined to introduce massive new expenses to government at all levels.
Gradually, the civil servants of the Twentieth Century began to demand, and get, on average, a higher salary and greater benefits than the private sector could provide. Statistics indicate that the only broad "industry" to flourish during the current recession has been the government. While private sector employees have seen wages freeze or diminish, and have watched their benefit plans shrink and employee contributions grow, our public sector employees at every level have too often enjoyed their regular raises without any reduction in these generous benefits.
Now governments across the land are forced, too late, to confront this long-festering wound. Upon reflection, we find that the liberal policies that led to these generous civil service compensation time bombs are in many ways the very reason that that they have become unaffordable. Consider:
- To fund a huge civil service, you need a huge tax base, but the crippling red tape and rules produced by this huge civil service of regulation-generators have driven employers and jobs overseas at a frenetic pace, stunting the growth of that critical tax base.
- To finance a pension plan, you set aside money every year, and invest it in the stock market; but the recent assault on the private sector has robbed those Wall Street investments of their expected growth, even shrinking their value, requiring ever greater state contributions to meet their obligations.
- To gain control of the healthcare industry and maintain their partnership with the trial lawyers, they passed ObamaCare, which has already caused massive increases in healthcare costs and has further damaged the economy... necessitating government's call to increase employee participation in the costs of these benefits at last.
On and on it goes. Every benefit the civil servants have prized is under assault by the effects of the socialist programs of their own side of the aisle. Our government's very growth has been its undoing.
In Wisconsin, schoolteachers who work nine months a year for six-figure compensation are picketing a governor for saying they should make some minimal contribution to their health insurance and retirement fund. They balk at half the contribution levels common in the private sector. Even when told point blank that Governor Scott Walker is trying to avoid any need to mandate furloughs -- that if they agree to his proposals, he can avoid draconian state employee cuts -- the unions have made it clear that they would prefer to see ten thousand state employees join the unemployed than to see one reduction in the benefits enjoyed by the few who remain.
This is no surprise to union-watchers of the Midwest. Thanks to such typical union positions, southeast Wisconsin is a shell of its former self as a manufacturing giant. As successive generations of regulators and negotiators worked their magic, Wisconsin fast became a state that only a public employee could love, and now it can't even claim to be that.
From their perch on Madison's Capitol Hill, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and the rest of President Obama's pet groups demonstrate in solidarity with the teachers, as their actual students are left at home, uneducated, or as they are forced to accompany the picketers as unpaid props.
Much has changed in two hundred years. This is a far cry from the days of Daniel Shays, when an unpaid army begged for justice. The voters are standing with Governor Walker; this time, the public knows who bears the guilt.
Today, it is too often an overpaid bureaucrat, a teacher enjoying three months of vacation, a clerk in a government department that shouldn't even exist. Yes, there are some government employees who understand, and support the Governor; they're happy to swallow the bitter pill of the increased co-pay or the increased pension contribution, but these are not the demonstrators we see on television. No, the ones the union chooses to showcase are the deniers, the agitators, the fools who refer to a state's virtual bankruptcy as "an alleged budget shortfall." There is no reasoning with such a crowd.
It is too soon to know for sure how many states will have the courage to take the necessary measures; too soon to know whether they'll eventually be rewarded or punished for it at the polls. But this much we know: at least some of our leaders are behaving responsibly at last, and they have chosen to educate their electorates rather than take the easy way out, kicking the can ever further down the road.
And we must remember that -- regardless of the sob stories of the picketers -- the grasping union stewards of the NEA, AFSME, and SEIU are hardly the mistreated army of Daniel Shays. The war heroes of the 18th century marched with a limp, from musket round and cannon blast; they commanded respect and deserved compassion. By contrast, the grasping marchers of Madison enjoy paychecks far more generous than those of the average taxpayer who is forced to pay their salaries. Wisconsin government just seeks to bring fairness and responsibility back to a system that long ago lost touch with reality.
Remember the old comic strip character, Pogo? His most famous line applies here. Instead of looking angrily at the governor's office, seeking an enemy to blame, the unionized employees of Wisconsin's governments need to take an honest look in the mirror, and say "We have met the enemy, and it is us."
John F. Di Leo served as Milwaukee County GOP Chairman in the 1990s. His columns appear regularly in Illinois Review.