“In Wisconsin and Ohio, they have decided there can no longer be two classes of citizens: One that receives the rich health and pension benefits, and the rest who are left to pay for them.”
— New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
So spoke a Republican fighting his own battles with public employee unions.
Personal opinion aside, Christie nailed the underlying issue of the recent elections, one that now, thanks to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, is all the rage.
That tea party and Republican insurgency last year sprang from a roiling sentiment: You have persons laboring in the private marketplace, subject to the perilous vagaries thereof, and losing either their jobs or pay level or 401(k) balances or sense of employment security.
So they rose up against the growth of government that tapped their declining resources to provide continuing pay and benefits security for market-immune public employees.
It was a bona fide wedge issue: Taxpayers versus tax receivers.
This resentment percolated even in a blue state like Wisconsin. It perhaps grew strongest there, actually.
That’s on account of the size and power of unions that serve the state’s vast numbers of public employees who are paid decently and rewarded handsomely with pensions and health benefits. And they historically have paid little for these perquisites themselves because of taxpayer subsidies.
I led a discussion of this matter last week. A retired teacher chimed in that the deal all along was that teachers wouldn’t get paid much, but, to compensate, would receive discounted and generous benefits. A man, apparently a plumber, replied that a teacher gets paid rain or shine while a plumber doesn’t. The teacher asked if the apparent plumber would take her salary. The apparent plumber replied that he would take her assurances of tax flow and her union’s leverage.
So it went. Just listen to the people and you will understand.
Meantime, conservatives who oppose organized labor altogether are aware that unions have been in a decline that would have been fatal except for their emergence in the service and public sectors. Service-sector employees are private and may do as they wish. But state and local government employees and teachers are within reach of the people through the politicians they elect.
So that is how Wisconsin, of all places, became the national battleground for what previously had been a cold war.
This Scott Walker, the new conservative Republican governor of that state, confronted a budget shortfall caused in part by tax cuts he favored. So he decided to light the fuse.
Quite reasonably, he asked teachers and public employees to join in the sacrifice and start paying more for their health and pension benefits — an effective 8 percent pay cut, on average.
But he didn’t stop there. Instead, he made two fatal and typical errors. He was too partisan and he overplayed his hand. He exempted the police and fire unions from his harsh hand because they typically lean conservative and Republican. Then he decided not to quit while he was ahead, even after essentially winning the benefit battle.
He decided not to accept the incremental gain that is the deciding essence of political competition in America. He opted to play to the right-wing grandstand by trying to gut the public unions altogether.
He wants them denied collective bargaining on benefits and everything else, in fact, except basic pay. He wants them to have to renegotiate every year. He wants government to cease collecting union dues via payroll deductions, thus to force unions to get their money directly.
He will lose on all that, and should.
But, because of a permanently downsized American economy and a political dynamic changed at least temporarily, public employees are going to lose that old bargain about being assured inexpensive and generous benefits.
Things are not like they used to be, either economically or politically.
John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.