Saturday, February 19, 2011

On Wisconsin

It's time to give a little credit where credit is due.

Wisconsin Democrats recently scored big points when it came to political theater.

For those who haven't been paying attention, the state of Wisconsin has been in the not-so-exclusive club lately of states who are having big trouble balancing a budget. It's a hangover from the economic woes of 2008, which still haven't disappeared, particularly on the employment front.

There's general agreement out there that some belt-tightening is definitely necessary. When it comes to state workers, that can mean not filling vacancies, reducing pay raises, and increasing worker contributions to their medical and pension benefits.

That's fine; it's all part of the game. But Governor Scott Walker led a proposal through the state legislature to take away the public employee unions' right to collectively bargain. (Walker was staring at a nine-figure budget deficit, just after he gave businesses more than $120 million in tax breaks.) That struck a lot of people -- obviously the workers, but a lot more -- as changing the rules of the game without warning. Protesters turned out in large numbers in Madison.

This might have been a minor footnote to the news, but this is where the stagecraft came in. Democrats knew that Republicans were ready to pass the bill, so they simply left the state -- leaving the legislature short of a quorum and unable to pass anything. That gave their side of the argument even more time to build momentum. That has happened.

And the workers' side certainly has had the better of the television pictures. There have been plenty of shots of them carrying signs and filling the state capital, asking simply to maintaining the bargaining rights that they have held for decades. We had almost three weeks of pictures of protesters in Egypt on our televisions. While the situation obviously was much more complex and important there, it was easy to make a mild connection.

These are obviously difficult times for public workers, who don't have a great public image for a variety of reasons. But taking away their right to negotiate is going to strike practically everyone but the far right as changing the rules of the game while the game is still taking place.

Walker may have started something in Wisconsin, but not what he intended to start by overreaching past common sense. This is one battle that is going to spread to other states which try the same techniques. I sense we are in for a bumpy ride.

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