As Goes Wisconsin... So Goes the Nation

Why the crusade to change the bargain between government and its employees is spreading

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Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images for TIME

A protestor in Madison braves the cold to support union workers

Randall Wentz works for the University of Wisconsin, vetting scholarship applications. He is a public employee, a union member. He makes $30,000 per year. We are sitting in a Madison, Wis., tavern with five of Randall's friends. All have 6-year-olds; they became friends through their children. All are public employees. Several are computer techies who make $60,000 a year. One is a middle school music teacher. These are educated, decent people, open and friendly in the Wisconsin way. They seem in equal parts flummoxed and infuriated by Governor Scott Walker's effort to limit the powers of their unions, his attempt to end collective bargaining for anything but wages and to restrict the unions' ability to collect dues. An essential fact of their lives — the security that has traditionally been attached to public employment —has suddenly been shattered. Most can handle the increases in pension and health care co-pays the governor has proposed. But Wentz is in a different category. He shows me his finances on a carefully folded piece of paper. "If this passes," he says, "I go off a cliff."

It is good to remember that, in the end, the prairie fire over the rights of public employees is about people like Randall Wentz — and many who are less fortunate than he is: the school-bus drivers, home health care workers and cafeteria workers who, even with union protection, barely make enough to keep their families afloat. It is also good to remember that America's most prosperous time — the period from the 1950s to the '70s — was also when its trade-union movement and its middle class were strongest. That was not a coincidence: the rights and wages won by workers in the industrial turmoil of the 1930s created a consumer class eager to buy every product, from homes to hula hoops, American capitalism could produce.

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. Clearly, there needs to be a rebalancing of pension and health care benefits that puts public employees more in line with the conditions that prevail in the private sector. But those changes must be accompanied by the recognition that a great many public employees are severely underpaid. This is especially true at the federal level, where the scientists testing drugs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the bank regulators at the SEC could probably double their salaries by sliding into the private sector. And it's also true at the very bottom of the wage scale, for the school-bus drivers and home health care workers.

The best rationale for the continued existence of public employees' unions is to create wage floors for such workers. But the unions have set about, largely unimpeded, to build walls (work rules) that constrict government innovation and ceilings (like opposition to merit pay) that make it less likely that the most talented professionals will remain in public service.

"You're arguing this from a good-government standpoint," says Scott Gletty-Syoen, one of the union members who is meeting with me at the Madison tavern. "But do you really think that's what Scott Walker wants? Do you really think that's where we're headed in Wisconsin?"

Fair point. And no, I don't. I think Scott Walker is a reflexive conservative who would probably be trying to bust his public employees' unions even if there were a budget surplus. His views are, in part, a reflection of the antitax fetishism that has become something of a mania in the U.S. If you want first-class public services — especially those, like education, that require real skills — you have to pay for them. (The idea, floated recently by Michigan's governor, that Detroit's schools can function with 60 students in a classroom seems a recipe for continued social disaster in that benighted city.) The existing arrangements between government and its employees clearly need a profound overhaul, but the idea that America can return to the mythic stability and prosperity of 40 years ago without a well-paid middle class, including public employees, seems a very dangerous experiment to undertake.