Thursday, March 10, 2011

Opinions are Like A-Holes...Wisconsin, Unions & Politics

Well, the controversy sparked by the Governor of Wisconsin and by Republicans Senators in that state’s legislature has been going on now for the better part of 2 weeks. Is it over yet? Not by a long shot.

But this set of issues has galvanized millions. It has caused Americans to take to the streets (especially around the Wisconsin state capital) almost like in Cairo, Egypt. I’m confused because it’s not a good guys in the white hats and bad guys in the black hats kind of issue—with the exception of the actions of Wisconsin Senate Republicans . And efforts to make it that way only confuse things more.

I’ve tried to read up on what the elements of this conflict are and it’s tough to get a handle on it. There are those who have oversimplified it to be a battle between unions and politics. Others say that it’s simply about money. I think there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

This may have become the focal point of a couple of different important things in our nation and economy. For one it’s about public money. For another it’s about the widening schism between the far right of the political spectrum and, seemingly, everybody else.

A third aspect, which to me is every bit as important as the others, is the role that public employees play within the various governmental entities they serve. And, to me anyway, the key word in that sentence is “serve”.

I personally don’t think it unreasonable for public employees to have to pay 1/8th the cost of their health insurance (with pre-tax dollars) as was proposed in Wisconsin. Neither do I think it unreasonable for those same employees to pay nearly 6% of their salary (pre-tax) into their retirement fund. Those in the private sector are used to paying that much and more for both health insurance and retirement. To suggest that this is unreasonable or a burden borders on the ludicrous.

I start to depart with the proposals made in Wisconsin when it comes to bargaining units and union membership and certification. The Governor’s proposal is just taking it too far. However, I do have a lot of problems (especially living in California where this is rampant) with the overt political activities of public employee unions.

I’m getting up there in age. I come from a time when public employees served, did not make policy (developed, recommended and implemented it but didn’t make!) yet negotiated and bargained for remuneration.

Here in California municipalities, counties and the state are all teetering on the edge of insolvency. Much of it can be put at the feet of overly generous and woefully underfunded pension programs. That’s not all of it, but it’s a great big chunk especially here in the San Diego area. Public employees often make more money than their contemporaries in the private sector and almost universally enjoy better fringe benefits. (I have health insurance but it’s pricey and I’m petrified of actually getting sick). There are governments in California actively considering bankruptcy to be able to get out from underneath pension costs.

And every election at the local or state level, voters are inundated with money spent by public employee unions—teachers, police, fire fighters—on ads, endorsements and veiled blackmail in favor or opposed to this or that candidate. Typically the effort is to seat school board members, city councilors, county supervisors, legislators and a governor who are “friendly” to education or public safety and will assure that the payroll funding is ever more generous. And I get to the point where I really resent it.

Should we return to the “old days” when public employees were precluded from “organized” political activity? There’s a part of me that says yes. Public employee unions, like all unions, have a big job of protecting the employment interests of their members in terms of salary and benefits and working conditions. And they should be free to do that job on behalf of their members. But the members have to do their jobs on behalf of the public first and foremost. I don’t know the answer to that question.

There’s a big chunk of me that thinks public employees should be restricted from influencing public policy or elections which affect their employment. There’s another chunk that thinks that these unions ought to enjoy the same freedom the PACs and “corporate individuals” enjoy. If I were to be pressed into a “forced choice” I would have to opt for enjoying the same level of expression as any other labor group. But I don’t have to like it. In fact, if a public workers union wants me to vote against “their” candidate or position, all they have to do is try to influence me with slick flyers or media advertising. I’ll go the opposite way every single time.

I fully expect yesterday’s actions of the Wisconsin Senate to end up in court if the bill is ever passed and signed by the Governor. And if it does, I have a hard time thinking that any rational court would uphold either the law or the dastardly way in which it was rammed through.

But that doesn’t change my attitude that public servants must be precisely that. Anything less and they should be fired. More particularly there’s a message out there that teachers, cops, firefighters and other public employees need to listen to. “Start being part of the solution.” Saying that this conflict is not about the money is false. It may be more about the ability to be part of a bargaining unit than the money, but it’s about making sure that the money’s there too. And any honest introspection yields that conclusion.

Things aren’t going to get better anytime soon. It’s like after a flood crests and all kinds of effort have been expended on sandbags. What’s left is a stinking mess that takes a long time to clean up.

And, like the title of this piece says: Opinions are like a-holes. Everybody has one. This is mine.

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