Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday that government workers’ collective bargaining rights have caused unsustainable costs and stuck to his demand that bargaining rights be curtailed for most public workers.
“If we do not get these changes, and the Senate Democrats don’t come back, we’re going to be forced to make up the savings in layoffs and that to me is just unacceptable,” he said.
Walker has been locked in a battle with his state’s public sector unions for the past four weeks over his proposal to strip the unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. His measure would apply not only to state employees but to those of local governments and school boards around the state.
Walker won last November with 52 percent of the vote, while Republicans won control of both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, both of which had Democratic majorities before the election.
Knowing they lacked the votes to defeat Walker's proposal, Democratic state senators fled to Illinois two weeks ago to deprive the Senate of the quorum needed in order to have a vote on the measure.
Despite promises from union leaders that they'd accept his proposal that government workers pay higher pension and health insurance contributions, Walker said, “over the past two weeks, even after they’ve made those promises, we’ve seen local union after local union rush to their school boards, their city councils... and rush through contracts that had no contribution to the pensions and no contribution to health care. In one case, in Janesville, they were actually pushing through a pay increase.”
Cost effects of collective bargaining
He also contended that the collective bargaining process allows unions to extract sweetheart deals such as a requirement in some contracts that teachers get their health insurance from a teachers union-owned company, which Walker said costs $68 million more than the state-run employee health plan.
“As a former local government official, I know that collective bargaining has a cost,” he said.
“Collective bargaining is a fiscal matter,” Walker said in a press conference last Thursday. He said even if collective bargaining were sharply curtailed government workers will still be protected from arbitrary firing or discipline by what he called “the strongest civil service system in the country.”
He said he’d learned as a county executive that every time he tried to balance his budget by changing work rules to increase productivity, union leaders who he said were “emboldened” by collective bargaining rules, would rebuff his proposals.
Thousands of union members and their allies held a rally at the state Capitol Saturday to denounce Walker’s proposal. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Saturday, “Not since the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era has Madison been the scene of such sustained and large demonstrations.”
Walker said on Meet the Press that he’d rejected the idea of infiltrating troublemakers into the demonstrations — a suggestion made during a prank call he received from a liberal blogger who was impersonating Republican donor David Koch. It was not clear from his answer if any of Walker’s advisors suggested such an idea to him, or how seriously Walker considered the idea.
Union president says workers underpaid
In a the Meet the Press roundtable discussion following Walker’s interview with NBC’s David Gregory, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said government workers in Wisconsin “are not overpaid, they’re underpaid.”
He also said the Wisconsin public pension plan, unlike those in several other states, is almost fully funded, implying that Walker has exaggerated the need to push for the bigger pension contributions that he's seeking from government workers.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican from a state that doesn’t have collective bargaining rights for state workers, noted that the federal government does not provide collective bargaining for its workers. “There’s no right to this under the Constitution,” Barbour said.
Meet the Press host David Gregory played a video clip of President Obama as a candidate in 2007 promising an audience that “If American workers are being denied their rights to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America.”
Obama also said 10 days ago that Walker’s proposal seemed to him to be “an assault” on unions, but since then hasn’t commented on the controversy.
Trumka sidestepped Gregory’s question about whether Obama was doing enough to support the unions in their struggle with Walker.
“It’s important for middle class voters to know that the president is on their side, but this isn’t about President Obama” Trumka said.
But Barbour said, "The president is one of the greatest politicians in the history of the United States and he's quiet (on the Wisconsin controversy) because he understands that most Americans know that this (cutting government employee costs) has to be done."