While second- and third-rank Republican presidential aspirants snort over front-runner Mitt Romney's liabilities, one of the truly large issues in present day politics emerges in Wisconsin. To wit, can anything be done to corral the excesses of public labor unions?
The Wisconsin unions' answer is a smug no — though of course they don't put it that way. What they say is voters should recall Gov. Scott Walker in a special election this year for limiting the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions.
On Tuesday, the unions presented stacks of signed petitions they say will lead to Walker's early dismissal from government. (He assumed the governorship only in January 2011.) The petition signers seek also the ouster of the state's Republican lieutenant governor and four Republican senators.
A year ago, facing a two-year state deficit of $3.6 billion, Walker proposed controlling public worker pension and health insurance costs through collective bargaining reform. The specifics of the measure, leaving public unions the power to bargain only over basic pay, drove unions and progressives (as liberals now call themselves) to fury. Thousands of protesters descended on the state capital: among them, teachers who abandoned their students leaving them to learn and fend for themselves. Democratic senators fled to Illinois, hoping to thwart the curse of majority rule.
It all went kaflooey. The bill passed, and Walker won. A new day dawned in Wisconsin labor relations. Public employees now must contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to pension plans and another 6.6 percent for health insurance (on top of the former 6 percent).
The result, in part? The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which had opposed Walker's plan, summed up recently: "The governor did balance the budget ...he did reduce the structural deficit significantly; he did put a lid on property tax increases; he did give schools and municipalities more control over their budgets than they've had in years." Now, the reckoning — the recall election. Was success worth the price? That is the question Wisconsin voters will face in the likely event petition organizers procured the necessary 540,208 signatures.
Not the flintiest conservative on the planet would insist the infliction of pain (e.g., worker pay cuts) is a barrel of laughs. A corresponding acknowledgment, nevertheless, is due from flinty liberals: When things can't continue as they are, they shouldn't continue. Walker's invaluable service to Wisconsin, not to mention the country as a whole country, was to stand forth and say, we have to do something different.
Courage of a large order was essential to this task. How would any of us like to be the target of daily shouts and insults and the inspiration for varied obstructions of business? It gets old. Yet, so, too, does the scandal of public employee union arrogance grow old.
Not even Franklin Roosevelt, who loved and supported private sector unions, favored the right of government workers to organize and bargain with the lawmakers they helped to elect in the first place. There is something indecent about bribing, as it were, a public official with campaign money and votes, then asking said official to render suitable thanks at the collective bargaining table. We all know the form and shape of those thanks: paychecks and benefit costs underwritten by taxpayers.
Memories of the angry schoolteachers who swarmed the Wisconsin capital last year sting and irritate. What were these people thinking? That it's fine to strike against parents and students? Fine to close classrooms and shut down schools? There's a high sense of public duty for you!
Gov. Scott Walker and the other threatened Republicans deserve, of course, to survive recall — though some or all could go down. On the other hand, if America is looking for a leader who leads and a chief executive who execs, maybe the name of Scott Walker — recalled or not — will stick in minds for the next presidential cycle. Here's a man who stuck his neck out for the taxpayers; he showed up and saluted when the bugle blew, without poll-testing, focus-grouping or apple-polishing.
To say voters don't often see such stuff these days is to say the bare, stripped-down minimum.
William Murchison, author and commentator, writes from Dallas. To find out more about William Murchison, and see features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.