Patrick Garry
A struggle for democracy
By Patrick Garry
February 23, 2011

A great struggle is taking place in Wisconsin. And it is not just over the projected $3.6 billion state budget deficit; it is over the integrity and functioning of our democracy.

Tens of thousands of public employees are skipping work to protest Governor Scott Walker's plan to restructure the collective bargaining rights for some public employees (confining their collective bargaining rights to matters of pay) and require that state employees, who currently pay little or nothing toward their pensions, contribute 5.8% of their salary to pensions. Governor Walker is also asking state employees to pay 12.6% of their healthcare premiums. In return, Walker has pledged no layoffs or furloughs for the state's 170,000 employees.

Governor Walker's plan would also end the government's practice of automatically deducting union dues from employee paychecks. He is proposing reforms that include allowing government workers to opt out of paying dues to unions they don't support — dues that union leaders use to wage political campaigns for bigger government, more taxes and higher government spending, even during times of budget crises. And for this, busloads of protestors from all across the country have flocked to Wisconsin to compare Walker to Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini. Protest signs accused Walker of "terrorism" and "rape." One sign had a photo of the governor in crosshairs: "Don't Retreat, Reload." ( much for the call for a more civil public discourse.) Indeed, so many teachers called in sick, so as to protest, that schools in Milwaukee, Madison and Janesville had to close.

The purpose of Walker's proposals is to combat the huge state deficit. All across the country, states are battling suffocating deficits. And yet, the president of the AFL-CIO, in protesting the proposals, made the ridiculous claim that the budget deficit was "a bogus crisis manufactured by Walker himself." Walker has been accused of waging an assault on unions and the middle class, even though the governor's plan seeks is in reaction to a 2009 law passed by a Democratic legislature that expanded public unions' collective bargaining rights.

On one level, Governor Walker's plan is one of unquestioned necessity. His state is billions of dollars in debt, the result of economic recession combined with decades of irresponsible and wasteful government spending. What should Governor Walker have done? — acted like previous governors before him, promising public employees pay and benefits that the government can't afford? And why should public employees be immune from any economic consequences? They receive, on average, thirty percent higher pay than do private sector employees. They receive higher medical and retirement benefits, more sick leave and paid holidays, and yet face relatively little risk of layoff, even during economic downturns. Where is the fairness or economic reality in that?

But there is another aspect to this conflict in Wisconsin. There is more at issue than simply balancing a state's budget. The second level of this conflict involves the relationship between public sector unions and a democratic society's freedom to govern itself. Indeed, the difficulty that bankrupt states are having in trying to cut costs is evidence that public sector unions are making it increasingly difficult for government to function.

We have long been aware of the dangers involved when mixing politics and government workers. The courts have ruled that public officials cannot operate patronage systems, in which they reward political supporters with government jobs and punish their political opponents by firing them from such jobs. The Supreme Court has ruled that such practices violate the constitutional rights of government employees and contribute to governmental corruption. But instead of having a system in which government executives use politics to control government workers, we have developed a system in which public employees, through their unions, now control government.

Public sector unions have become a political institution entrenched within government. In a way, they have become a separate branch of government — a branch that is intensely partisan and political. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), for instance, has been the third-largest contributor to federal campaigns over the past 20 years, and 95% of its political donations have gone to the Democratic Party. The American Federation of Teachers, for the past twenty years, has given 98% of its campaign contributions to Democrats.

The result is a political force entrenched within government, and yet essentially immune from any political or economic controls. It is as if there is institutionalized within the very structure of government a force that continually pushes for bigger and more expensive government. This is an institutionalized force that faces none of the type of checks and balances that the other political branches of government face.

Governor Walker wants to bring this institutionalized force under some kind of democratic control. He wants the citizenry, and not the public sector unions, to control government. His proposals stem from the basic idea that a society, and not a few unions, must control the activities of government. Last year, for instance, California had to shift $5.5 billion away from the state's public universities, transit systems and parks just to pay for increased pension and health care benefits for government employees. What Governor Walker is trying to do is to gain some control over the privileges and powers of a particular pressure group whose interests have turned out to be at odds with those of the general public.

This is a monumental struggle, and the unions and their Democratic supporters know it. It isn't a struggle confined to Wisconsin or simply to the issue of budget deficits — it's a struggle that goes to the heart of the functioning of democratic government. It has already spread to a number of other states grappling with the need to get massive budget deficits under control. And in these states, Democratic legislators are considering following the example of the Democratic members of the Wisconsin state senate. Instead of working through the democratic process, debating Governor Walker's proposals, these state senators have fled the state, refusing to participate in the democratic process. They stay in unnamed hotels because they don't want to draw any protestors. They give interviews to sympathetic national talk-shows, but they won't debate their positions within the halls of the Wisconsin legislature, to which they were elected to serve.

The opponents of Governor Walker in Wisconsin have painted a very depressing and demeaning picture of democracy. Indeed, their actions have shown just exactly what they think of the democratic process, and how much they respect the democratic will of society. This is truly a much bigger struggle than simply one over the balancing of one state's budget.

© Patrick Garry


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Patrick Garry

Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research... (more)


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