The Madison Protests: It’s Not About the Money

Howard Schweber – Associate Professor of Political Science and Law,  University of Wisconsin-Madison – Posted: February 20, 2011 09:57 PM


Madison, Wisconsin, The Heartland, America.

I am not what you would call a real “progressive” in the modern sense of the word. I actually have significant concerns about the role of public sector unions when they become too large — they can begin to act like monopoly players in the labor market and to exert an unwholesome amount of political influence. While we’re at it, the way outgoing Governor Doyle pushed through the last set of union contracts (and the light rail project) literally as he was leaving office was unseemly. Oh, and the claim that there would be no deficit in Wisconsin but for Walker’s new tax cuts? That one is false. The bulk of those cuts are not scheduled to take effect immediately, anyway. According to the Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau analysis (which you can find here), only $12.9 billion in loss of revenue is scheduled to occur before June 30, 2011; the rest of the $139 million does not take effect until the biennium ending in June 2013. (Of course, reducing revenue by $12.9 million right away when “we’re broke” is a peculiar move, but that is another matter.)

That being said, I am absolutely appalled and disgusted by the apparent inability of the media — even local papers like the Wisconsin State Journal — to get the most basic facts of the issue right. IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY. It has NEVER been about the money: from the very beginning union leaders said they are willing to accept the contribution requirements. And it’s worth pointing out that public sector employees have had four years of no raises (including one raise that was retroactively clawed back for some of us) and pay cuts in the form of unpaid furlough days. As a matter of fact, by promising to end furloughs, Governor Walker goes a good ways to mitigate the impact of the increased contribution requirements in the short term.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY. If I say it loudly enough, will anyone hear it? It’s about preserving collective bargaining and a governor who negotiates before he makes radical decisions and huge, transformative bills getting a public hearing before they are voted on. It’s about “democracy,” and it’s not really a coincidence that every petty tyrant you have ever heard of from Latin America to the Middle East started by crushing the trade unions.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY. Every speaker, every sign, every chant in the crowd is about collective bargaining. You might not think that “meet us at the bargaining table” would make an effective chant, but you would be surprised. Walker introduced his bill and right away said that he would not negotiate — with anyone, about anything — and that if the public sector workers tried to have a work action he would call in the National Guard. That was before any protests! This Governor went to Defcon 4 and started warming up his nukes be