A Wisconsin State of Mind coming to a Capitol near You

Posted by By at 18 February, at 18 : 27 PM Print

“And I think it’s very important for us to understand that public employees, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends.”

President Obama, once again ignoring that we are a Republic and that the States have the right to govern themselves, said these words in an effort to support the hijacking of democracy taking place in Wisconsin.

In scenes that look like they came from countries where free elections are at best a longed for dream, the public employees of Wisconsin are taking to the Capital, and they are howling mad. The issue is straightforward – saddled with untenable labor costs and inflated benefits packages, the freely elected government of Wisconsin is opting to end the right of public employees to organize and is imposing private sector-esque conditions on their employment.

Make no mistake about it – Wisconsin is just the first battle in a looming war nationwide. As anyone who has read my last few columns knows, the Federal government, is on its way well past insolvency. If anything, the states are worse off – and a key reason is that, unlike the private sector, public sector unionized employees are making above median wages AND have superior benefits. This was not always the case, and the shift from lower wages and better benefits to the best of all worlds is at the heart of the conflict.

Many, many decades ago society made an almost conscious trade off – public sector employees, because they worked in government, would make a lot less money, but they would have great health and retirement benefits. They also would not be subject to the economic volatility that is present in the private sector, trading the higher financial rewards for the near certainty of employment.

That is how it started. But over time, as public-sector unions – especially teachers’ unions – realized that they could genuinely cripple the communities they work for by going on strike, salaries rose to and past the community median incomes for people with the same level of education.

At the same time, all of those private-sector compatriots – who paid the salary and benefits of these public employees from the sweat of their brow – started to pay more and more for their healthcare at work. The trend lines started to diverge, as private-sector employees worked more for less and public sector employees – shielded by political action committees, favorable politicians, and COLAs – continually improved their lot.

This is finally coming to a head where it should – on Main Street, in an impassioned debate between the people paying the wages and those demanding them. For the last two years, the public employees unions have been shielded from the rest of our pain by using our (kids’) money. The biggest recipients of “stimulus” money, the VAST majority of the jobs “saved” with those billions, were public sector union employees.

That is not to devalue the jobs they do – but neither should we over value it, something that the salary and benefit packages suggest we may be doing. Furthermore, the fact is public sector employees have to be paid from the labor of private sector employees, and when one class feels subject to another, friction is going to occur.

This is the most dangerous time I can think of for public unions, and the NEA in particular. Once a sacred cow that the politician class could not dare take on, the NEA is now faced with Chris Christie and others showing that there is a solid majority of people fed up with being forced to work a second job, so a public school teacher member can have no co-pay at their job.

The NEA and AFSCME are not going gently into that good night, to steal from Dylan Thomas. In Wisconsin, the halls are filled with angry public employees railing against the exact thing that filled their coffers – the democratic process. Ironically, the only public employees apparently NOT in the Capital are the Democrats in the state senate. Faced with losing unequivocally they fled, hoping to stall the will of the electorate and distort the issues with parlor tricks.

Nor are the public unions above playing dirty here in our fair Commonwealth. Just this past week a story appeared where a 5th grade teacher – who’s union is in the midst of a labor fight – assigned a reading comprehension assignment entitled “Its Time to Pay the Price.” The topic? The systemic problem across the United States of low-teacher pay.

It gets better – the assignment suggests that the average teacher pay was $29,000, a number that is within spitting distance of the poverty line. There is only one problem: the average teacher salary at the district where this happened was over $80,000 a year. PLUS benefits.

Before you pooh-pooh the story as inconsequential, now imagine that the School Board did the same thing in reverse – say, claiming teachers only work 9 months out of the year, so they make more like $110,000 a year if they worked all year round? There would be Federal troops at their next meeting.

The ramifications of these fights – and of the tactics described herein – are just the tip of the iceberg. We have, as a nation, crossed the Rubicon on spending, and the sooner the left (which, argue all you want, is where the Unions live and breathe to life and breathe) figures that out the sooner we can down to the serious, meaningful discussions at hand – like how we afford that which we value in lean times, how do we replicate the productivity of the private sector, and how do we get costs everywhere – not just labor costs – under control?

The President is siding with his “guys,” I know. Unions elected Obama, and they remain his surest base of fundraising support as we approach 2012. But he is the President now, not a candidate, and he has a responsibility to all of us.

Because, as he might need to be reminded, we are his neighbors and friends too. Times are hard for most of the people in the private sector – and its long since past time that the public sector to share our pain.

(Posted to Rock The Capital is video from the protest that took place inside Wisconsin’s Capitol. Look for this scene to play itself out across the country.)

This post was written by:
- who has written 77 posts for Rock The Capital
Scott Paterno is an accomplished policy analyst and political consultant based in Hershey, PA. Mr. Paterno, never one to sit still, has practiced law, run for a house seat, and worked as lobbyist in Harrisburg and Washington. Paterno is Vice Chairman of the Sustainable Energy Fund and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Political Science. He is happily married with three children. - Email scottp

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