Whatever fiscal problems Wisconsin is — or is not — facing at the moment, they're not caused by labor unions. That's also true for New Jersey, Ohio and other states.
There were no sharp increases in collective bargaining in 2006 and 2007, no major reforms of the country's labor laws, no dramatic changes in how unions organize. And yet state budgets collapsed. Revenues plummeted. Taxes had to go up, and spending had to go down, all across the country.
Blame the banks. Blame global capital flows. Blame lax regulation of Wall Street. Blame homebuyers or home sellers. But don't blame the unions. Not for this recession.
Of course, the fact that public employees' pensions didn't cause a meltdown at Lehman Brothers doesn't mean they're not stressing state budgets, and that the pensions they've been promised don't exceed what state budgets seem able to bear. But the buildup of global capital that overheated the American housing sector and got packaged into seemingly riskless financial products that then brought down Wall Street, paralyzing the economy, throwing millions out of work, and destroying the revenues from state income and sales taxes even as state residents needed more social services? The answer to that is not to end collective bargaining for public employees.
A-plus-B-plus-C does not equal what Gov. Scott Walker is attempting in Wisconsin.
In fact, it particularly doesn't work for what Walker is attempting in Wisconsin. The Badger State was actually in pretty good shape. It was supposed to end this budget cycle with about $120 million in the bank. Instead, it's facing a deficit. Why? I'll let the state's official fiscal scorekeeper explain:
"More than half of the lower estimate ($117.2 million) is due to the impact of Special Session Senate Bill 2 (health savings accounts), Assembly Bill 3 (tax deductions/credits for relocated businesses), and Assembly Bill 7 (tax exclusion for new employees)."
In English: The governor signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health care policy experiment that will lower overall tax revenues. The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit.
Public employees aren't being asked to make a one-time payment into the state's coffers to cover this tab. Rather, Walker is proposing to sharply curtail their right to bargain collectively.
A cyclical downturn that isn't their fault, plus an unexpected reversal in Wisconsin's budget picture that wasn't their doing, is being used to permanently end their ability to sit across the table from their employer and negotiate what their health insurance should look like.
That's how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular.
If all Walker was doing was reforming public-employee benefits, I'd have little problem with it. There's too much deferred compensation in public-employee packages, and though the blame for that structure lies partially with the government officials and state residents who wanted to pay later for services now, it's true that situations change and unsustainable commitments require reforms.
But that's not what Walker is doing. He's attacking the right to bargain collectively — which is to say, he's attacking the very foundation of labor unions, and of worker power — and using an economic crisis that unions didn't cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create, to justify it.