Who would have thought that the No. 1 news story in Wisconsin so far wouldn't be the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl victory?
So continues the drama surrounding Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. The Republican-dominated Assembly seemed on its way to passing the anti-union legislation, while law enforcement officials continued to locate 14 missing Democratic senators who were refusing to show up in Madison, preventing the Senate from having a quorum to call for a vote.
The news of this battle has made for great theater, and the national media has been eating it up. You've got the protesters who won't go home, the tea partiers who are showing up because the protesters won't go home, and the attention-seekers that don't want to miss the spotlight. Throw into the mix prank phone calls to the governor and the crazy comments coming from observers in other states, and you've got a story that's too juicy to be ignored.
But is it that historically significant? I don't think so. Unions have been dying a slow death for years. In fact, the rate for union membership in the private sector was only 6.9 percent in 2010, compared to a 36.2 percent union membership rate for public workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When you look at the huge deficits facing state governments across the U.S., governors are going to have to sit down with their state workers somewhere along the line and discuss cost reductions. Gov. Walker just decided to be a little more aggressive in his discussions.
I grew up in Louisiana and personally witnessed the deterioration of union jobs. In 1976 the Louisiana legislature passed a "right-to-work" law that said an individual could not be denied the right to work because of membership or nonmembership in a labor union. As a result, my dad—a union pipefitter—was screwed. If he worked a nonunion pipefitting job, he would risk the loss of a 20-year pension he had with the union. If he wanted to work a union pipefitting job, he could follow co-workers to Alaska or Illinois, which might as well have been Alaska for a Southern boy used to running the air-conditioner 10 months out of the year. In the end, he did neither. After trying a couple of career changes, he spent another 15 years at one of the chemical plants that dot the Mississippi River. We never talked about it, but I'm pretty sure he took a big reduction in pay. I know he wasn't happy. Maybe he was satisfied.
My mom was an elementary school teacher. She was in a union, for what that was worth. I learned what her salary was after about 30 years of teaching. Let's just say it wasn't a motivator for me to follow in her footsteps.
So I've seen one union be inflexible to its members and another union be ineffective in bargaining for better wages. It doesn't really leave me with strong emotions as it relates to supporting or disparaging unions. Like when I was a kid, I'm just an observer. I've seen effective union and non-union shops, albeit more of the latter.
Frankly, it’s the money that flows from the unions and the likes of David Koch that makes me shake my head. How much of today's political debate focuses on the requirements of the fundraisers rather than the needs of the electorate? I regretfully think it's much more than we would like to believe.
Meanwhile, the soap opera in Wisconsin will draw to an end soon. But the whole story will continue to play out in other states around the nation.