Walker Is Losing the Argument Over Bargaining Rights

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Gov. Scott Walker addresses a joint session of the Wisconsin legislature Tuesday. credit: AP Photo/Andy Manis

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker is in need of, as former President George H.W. Bush once famously said, that vision thing.

As bold as the governor has been in calling for tough cuts to the budget, he's been equally timid in laying out the reasons to restrain collective bargaining in the public sector. He's taking the approach of a revolutionary reformer, but with the arguments of a number-crunching accountant.

If an elected official is going to bring up an issue sure to gin up opposition, he needs to use every play in the playbook to make his case--and, in Wisconsin, the burden is now on Walker to make a full-fledged argument on altering the relationship between government and public sector unions.

Instead, Walker has backed himself into a rhetorical corner by insisting the move is just about the state's balance sheet--not the debate over how much unions should influence the government workforce.

Walker is starting to lose the narrow argument that restraining collective bargaining is all about Wisconsin's budget woes. Wisconsin is one of only four states that currently have a fully funded pension system, according to a Pew Center on the States study, even as most other states are deeply in the red.

And a newly released Pew Research Center poll finds respondents taking labor's side: 42 percent favor the unions, compared to 31 percent supporting Walker.

That doesn't mean that limiting the public sector's collective-bargaining rights isn't good policy--or good long-term politics, either.

The generous benefits that have been negotiated in the past are unsustainable in the long term, especially with the baby boom generation heading into retirement. Any system where labor unions are effectively negotiating with their allies, at least when labor-backed Democrats are in power, is fundamentally unfair. And collective-bargaining agreements for teachers are filled with the kind of bureaucratic work rules that make firing incompetent teachers all but impossible, offering minimal incentive for excellence.

Even longtime labor leader Andy Stern, the former head of the Service Employees International Union, told The Washington Post that the status quo for unions was unacceptable--and that unions have been too slow to take the lead in advancing reforms to make the movement more relevant.

"The question is whether the public-sector unions can get on the side of innovation and quality," Stern said.

That's the argument Walker could be making in tandem with budget concerns. It's not just about penny-pinching, but about advocating strategies to make government more efficient, effective, and accountable.  

Americans care as much about the quality and effectiveness of government services as they do about guaranteeing benefits to government workers. The documentary Waiting for Superman showcased the human cost of rules protecting ineffective teachers in public schools. Ask anyone about their local DMV if you want a ground-level view of government services.

That's the real-life argument Republicans would be wise to embrace as they make the hard sell on fiscal reforms. The public might be prepared for straight talk on entitlements, but it's important to offer reforms--the light at the end of the tunnel--in exchange for austerity. It might take painful cuts at first, but it's in the service of a long-term benefit.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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