A dirty little secret about column writers is that we each have a handful of road-tested templates that we use all too frequently to make sense of something that has happened and demands our wise opinionation. These past few days I've been rummaging around in my stash for just the right template to apply to the showdown between the Republican governor and public-sector unions now playing out in Wisconsin.
One old trick is to suggest a thought experiment that asks readers to consider the mirror image of what is going on. In this case, you'd be asked what the reaction would be from Republicans and business interests if a newly elected Democratic governor and legislature proposed to deal with a budget deficit by first raising unemployment benefits and then pushing through a big corporate tax increase for all but the Democratic-leaning tech sector. For good measure, the package would also contain a ban on corporations making political donations without getting the permission of each shareholder, lest they use their power to repeal the tax increase and push the budget out of balance.
This is analogous, of course, to what Gov. Scott Walker has proposed for dealing with Wisconsin's budget gap: the tax breaks for businesses, the benefit cuts for all state employees except Republican-leaning police and firefighters, the automatic decertification of all public-sector unions and the stripping of their right to bargain anything but wages. Looking at Walker's reflection in the political fun-house mirror makes it abundantly clear that the governor has a more ambitious agenda than merely closing a modest budget gap.
Another useful template is the double-reverse historical analogy. The last time any elected leader made such a direct and brazen attack on the legitimacy of the union movement was when Ronald Reagan risked havoc in the skies by firing hundreds of striking air-traffic controllers and preventing them from ever getting their jobs back. This dramatic bit of union-busting became a turning point from which organized labor never really recovered - and, like the Wisconsin imbroglio, skillfully played off resentment of public employees whose pay and benefits exceed that of the average taxpayer.
But rather than playing Reagan to Wisconsin's truant teachers, Walker overreached, refusing to give up his union-busting even after the unions agreed to his benefit-cutting demands. Now that he has allowed the unions to reframe the issue from one of greedy public servants to one of political revenge, Walker has single-handedly succeeded in bringing more attention, unity and sympathy to the union movement than it has had since . . . well, since Ronald Reagan took on the control tower. A mischievous columnist might even take this opportunity to speculate whether this is the beginning of the revival of labor's fortunes.
Back when I was working at Inc. magazine in the mid-1980s, we loved nothing better when approaching a public-sector issue than to ask how the private sector would handle it. Faced with the situation in Wisconsin, we would have called up Tom Peters or Peter Drucker and posed the example of a new chief executive brought in by the shareholders (i.e., the voters) to rescue a company suffering from operating losses (budget deficit) and declining sales (jobs). Invariably, they would have recommended sitting down with employees, explaining the short-and long-term economic challenges and working with them to improve productivity and product quality in a way that benefits both shareholders and employees.