The big push by organized labor and the Democratic Party to flip control of the Wisconsin State Senate away from Republicans has gone down to defeat, with only two of the necessary three Republicans losing the recall campaigns. It is, no matter the spin, a big win for Governor Scott Walker and a big defeat for organized labor and the Democratic Party. So what happened?
Organized labor has suffered a series of defeats across the country. Even in Massachusetts the Legislature has enacted a modest diminishing of the collective bargaining rights of labor. Is labor being picked on? Or are the defeats at least in part due to miscalculation by labor itself? From my perspective it is time for labor, especially municipal and state employees, to look in the mirror. I have, as Mayor, negotiated over 30 collective bargaining agreements in six years. Included in those are two major health care deals which changed our plans to more accurately reflect the market. I do not approach this an a foe of labor, but as a friend. But the plain fact is that labor, in many cases, simply refuses to accept economic facts. Mayors throughout the country, squeezed by massive increases in pension and health care costs, bring these hard facts to the negotiating table during labor negotiations. Invariably we all hear the same response: “the City is hiding money”, “(insert name here) got an unjustified (raise, promotion) so we should all get the same deal”, “take it from another section of the budget”, “the Wall Street guys got away with murder, don’t blame us”, etc.
Inevitably the system is not just in many ways. But the executives HAVE to balance budgets by law. With the explosion in fixed costs that means something has to give. But labor, in many cases, just will not make even slight adjustments. In Massachusetts labor could have had a deal that provided for first rate health care and helped localities to save jobs WITHOUT the need to modify collective bargaining rights. They chose to dig in and give nothing instead.
The public, and the great middle, is where this fight will be won or lost. And people in that category are looking at some of the benefit packages and rebelling. They are being squeezed economically, and being asked to finance pensions and health care that they have no chance of achieving in their own lives. The arrogance of some of the responses, and the sense of entitlement that is exhibited in some of those responses, is alienating the very folks that vote and participate. Wisconsin is not a “conservative state”, but the Democrats and labor took a hard one on the chin yesterday.
Finally, as a political matter, the Democrats and Labor needed to do a lot more than “recall” state senators. They needed to only “recall’ where they could win. The White House and the National Democratic Party better sharpen their political operation pretty fast. The old saying “Proper preparation prevents poor performance” comes to mind here. Republican clean sweep in 2012? No longer is that prospect a pipe dream.