Wisconsin governor goes dark red

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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This column is titled “Purple Nation” because I have tried when I write to see both sides of a “blue state liberal” vs. “red state conservative” argument and, where I disagree, I do so respectfully, without impugning the other party’s motives or using personal attack words.

But in observing and listening to the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, concerning his confrontation with the state and local government employees unions, I cannot avoid the conclusion that he is someone who says one thing and means another.

On Tuesday in the Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will quoted Governor Walker as saying a day or so before, “I am convinced this is about money.”

But wait: several days before, the government employees gave in to all the governor’s monetary demands. They agreed to the governor’s demand to increase contributions to pension plans (from 1% now to 5.7%) and to increase contributions to the cost of their health care premiums (from 6% to 12.6%). In short, if there were collective bargaining, the union would have conceded and the governor would have won all his demands.

So everyone now knows, despite his words to the contrary, that the true goal of the governor is to destroy public employee unions. It’s not about money — despite his repeating that in a statewide “fireside chat” Monday night.

The legislation the governor and the Republican–controlled Wisconsin legislature are ready to pass (but for the absence of 14 Democratic state senators, who continue to be out of state and thus are denying a quorum to enable the law to be enacted) would ban collective bargaining on benefits and working conditions and any salary increases above the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Any salary increases above the CPI would be precluded from collective bargaining and require a statewide referendum — which could take a year or more to even take place. This would mean that the most the unions could bargain for are salaries that keep their members running in place. Obviously, there would be no need for a union if that were the case.

But why should private-sector unions have this right and not public-sector unions? Conservatives argue there are at least two important distinctions. First, governments are monopolies, so allegedly government employees don’t have to worry about governments going out of business. But governments can lay off public employees just as private companies can — and indeed, that is what Governor Walker is threatening to do (as many as 1,500 government worker jobs in the next several days).

Second, as Mr. Will put it in his column, unlike management in the private sector, executives in government are “not disciplined by the need to make a profit.”

But wait: Isn’t George Will talking about Governor Walker — the same man whose fortitude he took an entire column to praise? Isn’t Mr. Will saying that the same Governor Walker doesn’t have the “discipline” to engage in tough but fair collective bargaining and say no to excessive government employee union demands?

Moreover, public employees, unlike their private-sector counterparts, are subject to bans on the right to strike in most states — certainly by public safety workers and teachers. And in many states where government workers don’t have collective bargaining rights, deficits are soaring just as much if not more. So this seems more like scapegoating against easy targets in the era of anti-government Tea Party protests than a rational distinction.

I believe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right when he said, on May 8, 1937, “The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.”

So I would respectfully suggest to Governor Walker: Take responsibility as the strong executive leader you claim to be. Rather than attempting to hide behind a new law singling out government employees, go to the bargaining table and find the discipline, to use George Will’s word, to be tough but fair in a process of collective bargaining that FDR described as an essential component of our democracy.

Mr. Davis is the principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management and is a partner with Josh Block in the strategic communications and public affairs company Davis-Block. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).