OK, so unless you've been purposely being full-body scanned at your neighborhood International airport for the past two months, you've probably heard something about some weird shenanigans going on in Wisconsin. Wisconsin? You mean that state that Canada didn't want because they play real football, make lousy beer and we had to take them because we lost a bet? I'm sure there are a few real fine folks up there, but really, Canada would be a much better fit for you. Well since we're stuck with you, try to make Harleys just a little more reliable, will ya? And for Pete's sake, try wearing a shirt when you watch a game at Lambeau.
Oh, and thanks for that whole Brett Farve thing. Give us another Bart Starr, but keep no-class guys like Brett up there.
So anyway, the thing you may have heard in passing has to do with a guy named Scott Walker. He happens to be the governor of the tundra, and I'm sure he's a fine man. He presides over one of the better state economies (i.e. not teetering on the abyss this week), at least if you compare it with states where people actually live, such as California, Florida and New York. Not to say they don't have their own fiscal mess, but it doesn't rise to the level some others do. Mr. Walker's analysis indicates that they are running a $3.6 billion deficit over the next two years. Don't get me wrong, that's a ton o' beans, but it ain't THAT big.
Read some of the headlines on this situation:
"Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker Readies National Guard Against Unions" - The Huffington Post, 2/11/11.
"Union Bosses say one thing, do another" - on the Governor's website.
What's this all about, anyway?
I am no expert on Wisconsin or their fiscal problems. I do not know what alternatives they might have to close their deficit, aside from the old tried-and-true spend less than what you take in. But it certainly sounds like both (all) sides have drawn a line in the sand and have forgotten how to smooth it over.
Let me give you a sense of what it's like in New York. Having lived here for 21 years, after leaving California like a scared rabbit, I landed a job with the New York Lottery. Yup, I'm a state slug. And believe me, what Wisconsin faces is child's play compared to what both New York and California have/are/will be facing.
So let's draw some parallels, shall we?
In the dizzying race to see which state is the most corrupt, Louisiana used to be hands-down the winner, followed closely by Florida. But the times, they are a-changin'. You'd be hard pressed to find a resident of any of our states that didn't believe their own state was as bad as it could get. Except maybe Utah. And Idaho doesn't look too bad, either. Maybe Montana.
But New York, well, we sort of invented political shenanigans. And those we didn't invent we've co-opted, refined and perfected. Heck, corruption here is so ingrained our last Governor tried working a deal with the State Police to have 24 hour protection even after he was out of office, in clear violation of the law. What for? The damage had already been done. No one would want to harm the guy now, as long as he left Albany.
Part of the corruption involves Public Employee unions (leaving out entirely the unions tangled up with organized crime). Well, I say corruption but it may just be something a little less than that, like collusion.
You need to understand that I belong to a Public Employee union, specifically PEF (Public Employees Federation). I used to belong to CSEA (Civil Service Employees Association), but got bounced from that when I took a promotion. This is not a real comfortable situation for me, because I have long thought the Unions have outlived their usefulness. Instead of protecting workers from real issues brought by harsh employers, they've descended into protecting malingerers, malcontents and outright thieves. In another life I managed people, and I'd like to think that none of them ever needed or wanted protection.
So if I have a problem with Unions, why do I belong to one?
It's real simple. Here's where the "C" word comes in. New York has been held hostage by the Unions for so long, the vast majority of rank-and-file employees become Union members. Otherwise, they pay the Unions a 'shop fee' equivalent to the dues.
You betcha, either you belong or they get your money anyway. And if you pay the shop fee without becoming a member, you don't have dental or vision insurance coverage.
So when did Franz Kafka live in New York, and who gave him the ability to define employer-employee relations?
So I prostituted myself and joined the Union. Hey, the kids needed to see the dentist, and I wear glasses.
But somehow I feel that I've lost a little bit of my soul, because I've never needed Union protection and am still paying them $585 a year in order to work. By the time I retire, I'll have paid in something to the tune of $14,000. And they say that stuffing envelopes at home is a ripoff.
And yet...and yet. Here we are on the cusp of another budget battle. The last clown we had in Albany laid off workers. He turned them into pawns and would admittedly go back on his word to the Unions and the residents. I am not referring to him as a clown because he laid off workers. He was a clown without that. But he exacerbated his clownishness by trying to paint state workers as the Alpha and Omega of why the state has been deficit-ridden for years. Of course, it had nothing to do with the buffoons in the Legislature and the Senate, who actually spend the money, who were spending money they didn't have. The 'member items', AKA Pork, the Legislator's offices and staff, the layers of bureaucracy that perform no work, none of them had anything to do with that of course. No, it was those evil state employees. And only them. Why, if we could just get rid of them, the grass would be greener, the sky bluer, the Mets could actually field a winning team and the New York Jets and New York Giants might actually play in New York.
The Buffalo Bills, on the other hand, aren't going to win even without state employees.
Now, don't get me wrong. The Unions are just as bad as the lawmakers. After all, they've swung sweetheart deals with the best of them. I must admit that I make a good buck - a very good buck. I have outstanding benefits that private sector employers are not in a position to give anymore. And sorry, I'm keeping them. Not to rub it in, but for full disclosure (and since it's public record anyway), my salary is just north of $65,000. I'm not getting fat feeding at the public trough, but it's a very good living. My insurance is middle-of-the-pack but it costs a bit less than most HMOs. For the first 10 years I worked, I contributed 3% of my salary to the pension fund. That's it. And after 24 years, when I retire, I'll have roughly half my salary in pension benefits. All in all, it's really good.
But that's one reason I chose to take this job. At the time of hire, it was a fairly significant salary decrease to what I'd been earning. Just as anyone else, there were tradeoffs I accepted.
Now here's the rub. I am nominally a more conservative guy (little 'c') who wants government lean and mean. Take care of those who cannot, but don't allow public assistance to become a lifestyle. Don't spend money foolishly. And for crying out loud, live within your budget. But on some portion of this, the Unions are right. See, it's not all one way or the other. Both sides have their good points, and both are equally pigheaded and just plain wrong.
Back to the pension, which is the lightning rod of the issue in many ways. In this day and age, is it typical that employers are offering a package like what I have? No. They'd go broke, or would try to make you think they would. But when this system was put together way back when, it was designed to be a carrot to get people to work in public sector jobs. Traditionally the salaries couldn't match the private sector, and even then the post-retirement benefits were much more common in the private sector. But again, times change.
So here we are, trying to find a way out of this mess. Just as General Motors found they just could not afford to continue paying retirement benefits at that level, and as other companies have severely curtailed if not eliminated pensions, State governments need to revise their situations. So how do you do that?
Well, David Paterson in New York decided unilaterally to lay off workers, even though the Unions had agreed to concessions. The biggest one was creating a new tier for employees that had less generous pensions and a larger employee contribution. Frankly, that was long overdue. And it's another reason I have trouble buying the Union line, because what they (we) were getting was simply unsustainable. And they fought very hard to not capitulate to that necessary step. But again, Paterson went back on his word after the concession and laid off workers in the final hours of his administration.
And we haven't even mentioned California employees, who had unpaid furloughs forced upon them by the Governator. And now Scott Walker is threatening to strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights. By himself. Except the State Police and a few other public safety groups. Of course, then he also tried to get the State Police to arrest recalcitrant law-makers who have been vacationing in Illinois, even though a) Wisconsin Police have no jurisdiction in Illinois and b) no laws have apparently been broken anyway.
Is it me, or has everyone in government gone loopy?
What lemming-like phenomenon has turned presumably normal people to draw lines in the sand that cannot be massaged into agreements? What has happened that we've become so polarized, so Balkanized that it's either my way or the highway? For Walker to take the approach that the Wisconsin legislature must approve his budget that specifically destroys the collective bargaining that has been in place for years or he will lay everyone off is ludicrous. Do the Unions have too much now? Probably. But in all fairness, current employees have the right to expect that the terms of their employment will not change without their consent. When New York's Governor demanded that the Unions open up their current contract for modification, the Unions did the right thing and told him to take a hike. Were the agreements in place unfair to the public? Maybe, maybe not. But it gets down to this: a contract is a contract. If it's a lousy contract, remember that when you negotiate the next one. Negotiate a better one. But you don't go back and say that you did a bad job on the last one and you need to do it over, not when you're in the final year of the contract.
Mr. Walker and the Unions that represent the Wisconsin workers have a tough job ahead. They need to step back from the precipice and work together to come up with something fair for both sides. As a wise old man used to say, if both sides are equally unhappy, it's a good contract. If Mr. Walker continues his approach to destroy collective bargaining, he may get what he wants. But he will then lose the battle, and will have been wrong in doing it.
And don't forget to keep an eye on your State, either. This is just the beginning.