SACRAMENTO – If a real battle over union reform can take place in
Wisconsin and spread to other liberal rust-belt, union-dominated
states, then it could perhaps happen in California – although it
might take some time, given the political dynamic here and the
"marches to its own drummer" ethic of the Golden State.
Wisconsin, and the capital, Madison, in particular, is a
surprisingly liberal place, with a Progressive tradition that echoes
California's past. As the Wisconsin Historical Society explains,
"The Wisconsin Idea, as it came to be called, was that efficient
government required control of institutions by the voters rather
than special interests, and that the involvement of specialists in
law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the
most effective government."
Progressivism is bunk – based on the idea that expert elites should
run things, but the similarities between the states' political
history are striking. Indeed, California's Progressive history led
to this state's wide use of the initiative, recall and referendum –
forms of direct democracy designed to counter the power of special
interests. Unlike Wisconsin's voters, Californians aren't about to
put conservative Republicans in power anytime soon, but our state's
voters have a strong conservative tilt when it comes to deciding
Ironically, the liberal elements that have dominated Wisconsin and
California politics have now become the ruling elite, with political
muscle and special protections to rival those of the railroad
barons, whose abuses spurred the old-time Progressives. Public
employees are the new elites, and opinion polls suggest that
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's approach is resonating with voters who
see the unfairness of a system in which public "servants" enjoy
compensation packages and protections far beyond what private-sector
I still chuckle at the tilt of the callers who questioned me during
an interview last year on a public radio station in Madison. It's
the angriest response I've received – far more so than the polite
and occasionally agreeable calls I received while debating the
public employee issue on public radio in San Francisco. The old-time
leftism was almost quaint. Madison callers ranted about corporate
greed and insisted that the real pension problem is that
private-sector employees are not receiving enough of a retirement
benefit – a truism that's akin to saying that the real problem with
the health system is that people aren't getting enough health care.
Yes, but there's no magic wand to give every American one of those
typical government retirement deals that's the equivalent in
lifetime benefits to having several million dollars in the bank. The
cynical side of me thinks that the answer might be to have the state
government grant every worker in the public andprivate sector a "3
percent at 50" retirement (90 percent of final year's pay after 30
years of work, available at age 50). In about a week, after the
government and economy collapse, we can go about rebuilding the
pension system from scratch, which ultimately is what needs to be
I recall that Madison interview because, at the time, I wrote
Wisconsin off as hopeless. "These folks will never get it."
I was wrong. Running out of money really focuses the mind, even the
minds of government officials. Wisconsin Republicans – despite their
politically savvy but disappointing choice to exempt police and
firefighters from their reforms – understand that the real long-term
problem is the collective bargaining process. Sure, the unions have
agreed to higher employee contributions to bolster struggling
pension funds, but they know such increases can always be made up at
the bargaining table once the storm blows over, and the economy
starts humming again.
Collective bargaining – the ability of unions to negotiate contracts
on behalf of entire groups of workers – is bad enough in the private
sector, but it's a nightmare in the public sector. Essentially,
unions get to elect their own bosses. Public employees already enjoy
strong civil service protections. The whole idea of the civil
service system, designed to fight politicization and cronyism in the
bureaucracy, is that the employee has an ownership right in the job.
Throw union protections on top of that, and the taxpayer doesn't
have a chance.
Collective bargaining makes it impossible for governments to
consider privatization and other cost-saving reforms because unions
will never assent to that in negotiations. Collective bargaining
allows unions to implement nonsensical and counterproductive work
rules that harm efficiency and customer service. Unions protect even
the worst actors among their ranks, and, because everyone in a
collective-bargaining unit essentially is treated the same, it
promotes a race to the bottom in terms of performance. Collective
bargaining is why it takes years to fire incompetent teachers. It's
why the state has run up a pension debt estimated at up to a
half-trillion dollars, according to a Stanford University report.
There is no countervailing weight to this imbalance; even
Republicans often side with unions mostly for political reasons.
In California, different reform factions support different
approaches. Everyone agrees, though, that reform here must come
through that Progressive tradition of the initiative process. One
initiative proposal would significantly reduce public employee
pensions. Another one advocates paycheck protection, limiting the
ability of unions to directly take money from members' paychecks for
political activity. There's even talk of an initiative that would
end collective bargaining.
So far, Gov. Jerry Brown has been protecting the unions, which are
getting a great payback for their record expenditures on his behalf.
There's some debate among Republicans about whether to endorse
putting Brown's tax extensions on the June ballot provided that
pension reform also goes to voters. We'll see.
Union employees held a pointless Tuesday rally at the Capitol to
show solidarity with Wisconsin government workers. In California,
there's no need for union members to storm the Capitol, given that
they already own it. If anyone needs to fill the building's halls,
it is taxpayers, who get little say over there.
Again, if it can happen in Progressive Wisconsin, it can happen in
Progressive California. As the money runs out, the question is: