Walkom: The seductive appeal of union-busting

The story from faraway Wisconsin, insofar as it has been covered at all in the Canadian media, is usually treated as a bit of a joke - one that centres on the unusual decision last week by Democratic state senators to hide out in neighbouring Illinois in order to delay a controversial budget vote.

In fact, what's going on in Wisconsin should be of real interest to Ontarians. It is an extraordinary story of how a state renowned for its moderate - even leftish - views has decided to solve its fiscal problems by destroying public sector unions.

Like Ontario, Wisconsin has traditionally been home to a conservative kind of progressivism. It pioneered political party reform and workers' compensation legislation.

In 1924, its most famous populist, Republican Sen. Robert (Fighting Bob) La Follette, ran for president on the Progressive ticket.

In the 2008 presidential election, Democrat Barack Obama carried Wisconsin handily.

But like the rest of North America, Wisconsin suffered from the recession and subsequent slowdown. Its unemployment rate rose; its tax revenues declined. A small state (its population is 5.6 million), its biennial deficit is expected to rise to $3.6 billion by 2011-13.

In relative terms, that's not extreme (Ontario, with a population of 13 million, projects a current annual deficit of $18.7 billion). But it was enough to cause the state's voters to elect hard-line Republican Scott Walker as governor last fall.

Campaigning on a platform of smaller government, Walker promised both $2 billion in tax cuts and a balanced budget. Aided by a Republican-dominated legislature, he has delivered tax cuts - which, of course, promise to increase future deficits. How then to balance the budget?

One part of the governor's solution will be familiar to those who watch Ontario politics. Like Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak, Walker has pledged to end subsidies to green energy projects.

But his real focus is on teachers and others who make up the state's 175,000-person unionized workforce.

Walker wants state workers to pay a higher share of their pension and benefit costs. They've agreed.

Beyond that, however, he wants to effectively gut their unions. Under proposed legislation affecting all state employees - with the significant exception of firefighters and police - hard-won collective bargaining rights would be scaled back to 19th-century levels.

First, workers would be forbidden from negotiating anything other than wages. Issues such as pensions, benefits, working conditions and even holidays would be out of bounds.

Second, wages could rise no more than the cost of living. So even where they could negotiate, unions would have little to talk about.

Third, all contracts would be limited to one year. Bargaining units would require annual certification votes and the payment of dues would become voluntary - moves designed to make the very existence of unions more difficult.

It was the anti-union nature of Walker's so-called budget repair act that caused the state's Democratic senators to flee to Illinois, thereby denying the quorum that would allow this legislation to pass.

But they can't stay away forever. Unless Walker relents - and there's no sign of that - Wisconsin's path-breaking attack on unions seems likely to succeed.

Thanks to a Canadian Supreme Court ruling that protects certain union rights, cash-strapped governments in this country will not be able to copy the governor's exact formula. But political parties here are always on the outlook for bold new ideas from their American cousins. I expect Hudak in particular is watching events in Wisconsin with great interest.

Toronto Star, Wed Feb 23 2011
Byline: Thomas Walkom

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