Power play in Wisconsin

It’s not about the budget, it’s about destroying the unions

If you’ve been following events at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., you may think the conflict is over how to balance the state budget and that Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, wants to roll back public employees’ collective-bargaining rights because union workers cost the taxpayers too much money.

If that’s so, why doesn’t his effort apply to some of the largest unions in the state, those representing police officers and firefighters? Because those unions supported his candidacy for governor. Walker is going after teachers and state-government employees because they traditionally have supported Democratic candidates.

Understand that the budget imbalance exists because, soon after taking office, Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted a series of tax breaks that reduced state revenues by an amount virtually equal to the current budget deficit.

The embattled unions have agreed to concessions, but Gov. Walker isn’t interested in making a deal. As Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times, “he has made it clear that rather than bargaining with workers, he wants to end workers’ ability to bargain.”

This is a battle over political power, not money. Walker and his fellow Republican governors are hoping he’ll start a movement that will spread across the country (it’s already moved to Indiana), destroying the public-employee unions that have been such strong supporters of Democrats.

As Krugman notes, unions are among the few players in our political system that can counterbalance the massive financial weight of corporations. As private-sector unions have declined, public-sector unions have emerged as one of the few remaining checks on the oligarchic accumulation of power by the wealthy class—the very group that caused this recession that has created budget crises in so many states.

At the same time, the unions need to realize—as those in Chico have done—that workers in the private sector have seen their wages and benefits and 401(k)s decline. They need to share the pain by accepting cuts in their pay and benefits and agreeing to pension reform. That’s the best thing they can do to keep the public on their side in this coming war with corporatist Republicans.