Conservatives say eliminating most collective bargaining rights needed to contain costs; opponents accuse Governor of union-busting motives
By Miriam Raftery
March 3, 2011 (San Diego) – A crowd of 1,000 demonstrators turned out in downtown San Diego Saturday as part of a nationwide movement in support of Wisconsin public workers. Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker seeks to eliminate nearly all collective bargaining rights for state workers including teachers, police, firefighters, janitors, highway workers and others. The state’s Republican-controlled House passed the proposal--and Senate Democrats promptly fled the state to prevent passage. Today, the Governor ordered their arrest.
A crowd of over 100,000 braved a snowstorm in Madison, Wisconsin following the house vote, occupying the capitol building overnight. Now recall campaigns have been announced against eight GOP Senators in Wisconsin who back the bill.
Much misinformation has been spread in the media and on Internet blogs. What would the Governor’s proposal do—and is it necessary? Could California be next to face a similar proposal? ECM has researched the issues and obtained views from all sides of the aisle.
Governor Walker’s plan would take away most, but not all, collective bargaining rights for public workers. Unions could still bargain for wages, but only up to cost of living increases, according to the Chicago Tribune. However, unions would lose virtually all other bargaining chips since they would no longer be allowed to collectively bargain for benefits such as medical, hours, vacation or sick time. Nor could they bargain for improving workplace conditions or safety concerns.
A grievance procedure would be replaced with a civil service procedure in which the agency head would be the final decision maker on a departmental employee’s grievance. “Everything will be in the hands of and controlled by the employer, without employee recourse,” a statement on the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ website in Wisconsin states.
The Governor contends that stripping away collective bargaining rights is needed because state revenues have fallen (though unlike California, Wisconsin is not currently facing a budget deficit). Stimulus funds that helped close the gap in 2009 and 2010 are not available at present. He argues that pension benefits and certain other benefits are not sustainable.
Union leaders have indicated that they are willing to share in sacrifice and have agreed to take some cuts, but not to the extent that Walker is demanding. They point to tax cuts the Governor has supported that have made the revenue shortfall worse and say there are better options than hurting working families.
Meanwhile, worldwide attention is focused on Wisconsin, where protesting workers have receieved e-mails, pizzas, and donations from across the country and around the globe, including a $1,000 donation reportedly sent by a pro-democracy demonstrator in Egypt.
Could a Wisconsin-style proposal happen in California? Should it?
San Diegans and East County leaders’ voice their views
Locally, leaders on both sides of the issue are speaking out.
“Wisconsin is not about the budget. It is an effort to extend corporate power and destroy unions,” said Mike Garrod, Eastlake Bonita Democrats, in an e-mail sent to members.
San Diego Republican Party Leader Tony Krvaric expressed optimism that Wisconsin-style efforts to eliminate public sector collective bargaining rights will happen here. “You will see California, too, wake up,” he predicted, according to the San Diego Tribune. Krvaric called collective bargain for public workers “ a 50-year experiment whose time has run out” and deemed it a “failure for taxpayers.”
San Diego County Labor Council CEO Lorena Gonzales views the issue as an assault on workers and the middle class. She issued the following statement. “We have watched this week as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has attempted to use budget shortfalls as an excuse to take away the future rights of more than 150,000 local and state workers. ... Gov. John Kasich is attempting to do the same thing in Ohio.” Noting that both Governors are facing massive protests “in a show of support of middle class workers' rights,” she added, “Corporate interests and their handpicked politicians have successfully blamed the economic problems of our country on the average worker, to try escape their responsibility in causing our massive recession.”
Gonzalez said members of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO “vigorously applaud the efforts of ordinary citizens – union and nonunion, student and teacher, firefighters, child care providers, public servants, veterans and working families that have refused to let this narrative continue in Wisconsin and Ohio. We stand in solidarity with the working families of Wisconsin and Ohio and commit to continue to fight for every workers right to join together and collectively bargain for a better life.”
State legislators Juan Vargas and Toni Atkins, as well as school board president Richard Barrera, were among the elected officials speaking on behalf of workers’ rights at Saturday’s rally outside the County administration building. Barrera said ending bargaining rights for public employees would lead to erosion of the middle class, as well as government services and programs. Reducing benefits and rights of public sector workers could lead to a downward spiral of wages and rights for workers in the private sector as well, some contend, noting that no longer would private employers feel a need to be competitive with the public sector in order to retain or attract employees.
But David Smyle, co-founder of East County Tax Hawk, applauds the Wisconsin Governor’s actions. “I think he’s brave and courageous,” Smyle told ECM in an interview yesterday. “This needs to be done in every state in the union.”
Russell Buckley, also a Tax Hawk co-founder, said that unlike private sector unions negotiating with private companies, “in the public sector there is no push back on behalf of the taxpayers.”
Are there other solutions?
Are there alternatives to breaking collective bargaining rights for public unions in order to reign in budget deficits?
Not all Republicans fault the unions for today’s budget debacles. “Don’t blame the collective-bargaining process,” says Republican San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, the Union-Tribune reports. “Blame the mayor, blame the City Council, for not having the backbone to stand up and impose contracts that are reasonable.”
Some Democrats see the issue as a revenue shortfall problem, not soley a spending problem, citing loopholes granted to large corporations and rich individuals. Minnesota’s Governor, also facing a budget shortfall, is proposing to raise taxes on the wealthy rather than ask public employees to give up major benefits.
Perhaps the most innovative solution long-term has been proposed by William Lerach, a San Diego-based attorney and investor advocate who once won a $7.2 billion judgment for victims of the Enron fraud. Lerach calls the confrontations in Wisconsin and other states a “political blame game” that scapegoats workers for pension fund deficits that threaten some state’s solvency.
“The real cause of the pension fund debacle is the greed of Wall Street and its corporate allies,” Lerach has stated in a recent editorial. ”It’s a result of their dismantling of our nation’s regulatory safeguards and Wall Street’s capture and abuse of America’s pension funds—charging them huge management fees while losing trillions of dollars of pension fund assets.”
His proposal to fix the problem is to prevent Wall Street money managers from speculating with workers’ retirement savings in risky investments. Second, he proposes creating new 7-8% inflation-indexed U.S. Treasury bonds for retirement funds in staggered 10-30 year maturities—then require all pension plans to buy and hold them as 80-90% of all pension plan assets.
“The solution will also help finance our huge federal deficit,” Lerarch concludes. “It’s a simple, elegant solution—but Wall Street and the politicians they control will never permit it.”