Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Unions, politicians, and the people

I'm growing more and more frustrated by the stupidity of the current conflict between trades unions and several State governments. It seems to me that both sides are adopting intransigent positions, refusing to look reality in the face.

Wisconsin is the bellwether state in this matter. I don't think the unions there have a leg to stand on, quite frankly. The present Republican majority and the new Governor actively campaigned - and were elected - on a promise to rein in union benefits and contracts, and prevent the unions from dictating terms to the State in future. They're doing precisely what they were elected to do. If the unions don't like it, they should complain to the people of Wisconsin, who voted for the program currently being implemented. I don't think the people are going to be very receptive to the unions, especially not the teachers' unions - not after today's news.

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009 - the latest year available - only 32 percent of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders earned a 'proficient' rating while another 2 percent earned an 'advanced' rating. The other 66 percent of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders earned ratings below 'proficient', including 44 percent who earned a rating of 'basic' and 22 percent who earned a rating of 'below basic'.

The test also showed that the reading abilities of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders had not improved at all between 1998 and 2009 despite a significant inflation-adjusted increase in the amount of money Wisconsin public schools spent per pupil each year.

In 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Education, Wisconsin public school eighth graders scored an average of 266 out of 500 on the NAEP reading test. In 2009, Wisconsin public school eighth graders once again scored an average of 266 out of 500 on the NAEP reading test. Meanwhile, Wisconsin public schools increased their per pupil expenditures from $4,956 per pupil in 1998 to 10,791 per pupil in 2008. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator the $4,956 Wisconsin spent per pupil in 1998 dollars equaled $6,546 in 2008 dollars. That means that from 1998 to 2008, Wisconsin public schools increased their per pupil spending by $4,245 in real terms yet did not add a single point to the reading scores of their eighth graders and still could lift only one-third of their eighth graders to at least a 'proficient' level in reading.

The $10,791 that Wisconsin spent per pupil in its public elementary and secondary schools in fiscal year 2008 was more than any other state in the Midwest.

There's more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis.

That increase in spending was directed almost exclusively to the salaries and benefits of teachers, obtained for them by hard-line union bargaining . . . yet there's been no increase in the quality of education in the state. If that's the case, why are they paying their teachers more money? I'm sure many of the voters in Wisconsin would love to hear the unions' answer to that question.

However, I'm not happy that the GOP in Wisconsin appears to be using the present crisis to try to include measures that I regard as undemocratic and fatally flawed. For example, via Earthbound Misfit and Gin And Tacos, we learn that the proposed legislation includes profoundly flawed clauses such as this:

16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state-owned heating, cooling, and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).

What the hell? How can it possibly be in the people's interest to authorize a department of state government to sell major public assets without any oversight, and give it the authority to determine for itself that the sale is 'in the best interest of the state'? That could effectively let them sell the assets for a bargain price to a political ally of the GOP, and get away with it, legally speaking. Sorry - that doesn't pass the 'smell test'. If I wouldn't want my political opponents passing such a law, why should it be any more acceptable for 'my' side to pass it?

The situation in states other than Wisconsin isn't so clear-cut. I agree with the governor of Indiana that present moves by the Republican-controlled legislature to rein in union rights there are not necessarily appropriate. Please note, I don't disagree with the principle, but the voters haven't had a chance to approve it yet. The Indy Star points out:

Today’s fight was triggered by Republicans pushing a bill that would bar unions and companies from negotiating a contract that requires non-union members to kick-in fees for representation. It’s become the latest in what is becoming a national fight over Republican attempts to eliminate or limit collective bargaining.

Gov. Mitch Daniels had warned his party late last year against pursuing so-called 'right to work' legislation. While he agreed with it philosophically, he said it was a big issue that needed a state-wide debate and noted no Republican had run on this in the November election.

Again, more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis.

I agree with Governor Daniels. If any party wants to introduce such far-reaching legislation, let it be because they have a mandate to do so from the voters. Many of us bitched and moaned because Obamacare was passed despite massive voter opposition, and without any mandate for it. If that was unacceptable to us, we shouldn't try to ramrod 'our' legislation through on the same basis. Let the people approve it by electing those they know will pass it - or by electing others, if they disapprove.

Trouble is, the local issues are being subsumed in national causes. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

Republican and Democratic leaders and strategists appear to be relishing the broadening fight over labor unions, feeling it is energizing their core supporters and clarifying key differences between the two parties.

Democrats claim the fight has injected fresh energy into the ranks of labor unions, which are a major supplier of campaign money and volunteers for Democratic candidates. Republicans say the showdowns show they are the ones willing to make tough decisions to cut government spending and take on entrenched powers.

The various clashes over union benefits and clout hold implications for the 2012 elections as they spread to Indiana, Ohio and other presidential swing states.

Many of the potential GOP presidential candidates, including Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty and Alaska's Sarah Palin, have backed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and criticized President Barack Obama for taking the side of the public-sector unions.

The AFL-CIO has seized on the Wisconsin protests to energize labor activism across the country. Union organizers say they are planning rallies and protests in dozens of state capitals this week as they scramble to tap into a surge of anger over the Wisconsin bill.

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation's largest public-sector union, said the moves in various state capitals to target state employees were an explicit effort to undermine a key source of Democratic funds.

"They know how much we spent in the last campaign," he said. "They're going to try and shoot us down."

. . .

Officials from both parties agreed the Wisconsin fight was freighted with consequence. But some also acknowledge that it was unclear so far which side the public would back.

. . .

The national stakes for both political parties in Wisconsin itself are particularly high. Mr. Obama won the state by a wide margin in 2008, as every successful Democratic presidential candidate has since John F. Kennedy.

But Wisconsin turned sharply to the right in last year's election. If the current budget battle redounds to the Republican's favor, that could weaken Mr. Obama's odds in the state next year, and even his chances for re-election.

More at the link.

I think that fiscal conservatism and financial common sense are what the voters of America want right now. I hope those holding elected office will deliver what they want. If they would refrain from scoring cheap points off one another in the process, that would be great . . . but that's probably a futile hope.




The Lost Goat said...

I read that quote from Mr. McEntee this morning, and I was bemused by it. He's already got the pro-union guys behind him, and us anti-union guys already know that that's how the system works. Do you think a lot of swing voters will be swayed by the fact that unions have a lot of money to pour into elections, and that the vast majority of that money goes to Democratic candidates? Public reaction to campaign finance laws seems to indicate that swing voters are suspicious of large chunks of change pouring into elections, especially when the donors have an obviously self-serving motive.

tpmoney said...

While I agree on keeping sweeping legislation to that which is actually voted for, I've never been 100% clear on how it is at all legal for the unions and businesses to negotiate the confiscation of a third party's money to fund one or the other.

I get the argument for why they should be able to do so, it's basically a free rider problem, but ultimately that's something the union just needs to deal with. No one except me should have any say over what happens to the money in my paycheck, and I shouldn't have to pay fees to some third party in order to work.

karrde said...

Per the 'most of the money went to teachers...'

It is possible that a majority of the new funding went to administrators rather than teachers. But administrators in schools tend not to get noticed when budget-cutting time comes.

suz said...

Karrde, good question. Peter, EXCELLENT post!

The money grabbers on both sides are positioning themselves to take full advantage of the fear and instability. We can't read the fine print while we're screaming at each other. They love this stuff.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that, other political specifics aside, this is turning a lot of independents against anything labeled union, rightly or wrongly. Bussing AFL-CIO folks from New York into other states to help is not winning any friends from folks out here in the corner of fly-over country, judging by what I'm hearing.

Using the current crises to push through other, unrequested, measures strikes me as showing a great lack of foresight ("don't just stand there, pass a bill, any bill, quick!!!"). They have a mandate right now. In two or four years, maybe not. They had best think things through very carefully before passing legislation that could come back and haunt them.

Anonymous said...

While Mitch Daniels is a good Governor.He is wrong on this right to work bill.Many in Indiana myself included support this bill

suz said...

Incidentally, there's a school district nearby that starts teachers well under 20 grand. They recently posted a job opening for a secretary, no experience or degree required. Starting salary:$33,000.

Sorry for carping on the details; it's the big picture that counts.

perlhaqr said...

suz: The secretary almost certainly won't get automatic raises every year, though. If you know you have to bump someone's pay 10% ever year, it's in your interest to at least start them low.

Dad29 said...

I am very disappointed at your remarks concerning selling the UW-Madison's power-generation plant.

Without going into the question of "who, exactly, SHOULD 'review' the terms of the sale"--normally the State's Building Commission and/or a joint Leggie committee--there are at least two public utilities which could add that plant to their assets: WP&L and MG&E. Both have Madison electricity markets. A third, WE, might have an interest, but it's largely Eastern Wisconsin-based.

Besides those, there are a number of national utility aggregators (FP&L is now one of them) which could have an interest in the plant.

All the flapdoodle about "the public interest" here is spin from State-Union employees worried about losing their enormous health and pension plans when the plant is sold.

I'm only surprised that you didn't tell us that "the Koch Brothers" were going to buy the plant for $1.00 (and re-sell it for $50 million in two days.)

You should know better!

Dad29 said...


The plant in question is in serious violation of WI and EPA air-quality standards and will need a bunch-of-millions in remediation expenditures over the next few years.

Do you REALLY think that the State of Wisconsin has spare cash to invest in an electric plant?

Or do you think that the State's business is not primarily producing electricity?

If you think Wisconsin SHOULD be producing electricity, please cite the authority for same from the Wisconsin Constitution.

Peter said...

Dad29, I think you misunderstand me.

I have no objection to the state being allowed to sell its property. I have every objection to its bureaucrats being allowed to do so, at whatever price they wish to set, to whatever buyer they choose, without being accountable to anyone, and being given the specific authority to declare their actions to be 'in the interest of the state'. That's an open door for corruption, IMHO.

If the sale takes place under the supervision and control of elected officials (i.e. the legislature), with opportunity for public scrutiny and comment, I have no problem with it at all.

I hope this clears up any confusion.

Dad29 said...

As proposed, any sale WILL be scrutinized by the Governor (and his advisers.)

No, it's not merely 'bureaucrats' who will authorize the sale.

As you've probably learned today, Walker is a genuine through-and-through Eagle Scout (he DID earn that honor.) Even when being pwnd by some bozoblogger pretending to be David Koch, he simply re-iterated exactly what he'd said in public.

Believe it or not, this man means exactly what he says and says exactly what he means.

(You are entitled to a dead-faint after reading that...)