Thursday, March 03, 2011

As Goes Wisconsin... So Goes the Nation

Joe Klein in Time Magazine with some good points on WI:

But there are some very good reasons governors of both parties are trying to limit the power of public employees' unions. "I've spent years pleading for modest concessions from the unions," says Bob Ziegelbauer, a Wisconsin state representative and the chief executive of Manitowoc County. "The reaction is, 'You can't make me." Ziegelbauer used to be a Democrat and now calls himself an independent, but he caucuses with the state Republicans. He says when he was able to negotiate a settlement with local union representatives, their leaders often would veto it. "There's a ruthlessness in attitude at the union headquarters. The leaders would rather take layoffs than make concessions." Sometimes the union intransigence is downright ridiculous. "We spend $650,000 a year to keep our county juvenile-detention facility open. In recent years, we've had as few as one or two juveniles incarcerated there at a time," Ziegelbauer tells me. "I wanted to close down the place and use the facility in a neighboring county. But the union blocked it on the grounds that it was outside contracting."

Such horror stories are especially common in the biggest cities, where unions have the strength of numbers and a tradition of dealing with, and helping to elect, liberal, pro-union politicians. This is a major advantage that public employees' unions have: unlike construction workers and miners, they can vote their bosses in or out. Their unions make political contributions, mount advertising campaigns and run phone banks. Public employees tend to be ferocious campaigners and assiduous voters, the sort of constituents politicians find panderworthy. And this power has enabled them to distort the system, especially when it comes to work rules, health benefits and pensions — concessions politicians are more likely to grant, since they are future promises that, until recently, have had little immediate impact on the bottom line.

Another advantage has to do with the nature of public work. "There is a fundamental dysfunction here," says former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein. "It isn't the same as, say, General Motors dealing with the United Auto Workers. The UAW understands, ultimately, that if it doesn't get real about health and pension benefits, GM could close, and all their jobs will be lost. When I sat across the table from the teachers' union, their negotiators knew we weren't going to close down the schools." In New York, as in other big cities, the unions routinely won concessions that were quite astounding.

The teachers, especially, became a reactionary force when it came to school reform — opposing charter schools (in Detroit, the union blocked a $125 million private contribution to build five new charter schools) and merit pay; they lashed themselves to strict seniority rules more appropriate to assembly-line workers than would-be professionals. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to negotiate a deal whereby layoffs, if necessary, would not be made on a last-hired, first-fired basis. "So you'd rather have them lay off the more experienced teachers?" a Wisconsin teacher asked me. No: teachers should be hired and fired and paid according to their ability. "But who judges that?" the teacher asked. Their employers do, I replied. The teacher scoffed; the idea that school principals should be able to decide who should be part of their workforce seems incomprehensible to most teachers — and yet that sort of accountability is at the heart of any system that aspires to excellence.

The strongest arguments against public employees' unions lie there: in their power to block reform and strangle good governance.


As Goes Wisconsin... So Goes the Nation

By Joe Klein Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011,8599,2053510,00.html#ixzz1Evopllgk

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