- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Republicans and conservatives think they’ve stumbled upon political gold in Wisconsin. Take on those overpaid public employees and their unions, responsible for bankrupting states across the country, and you restore fiscal sanity while standing up for taxpayers who pay the freight.

Moreover, the cozy relationship public-sector unions have with Democratic officials they helped elect only to bargain lavish contracts with them, throws the legitimacy of public-sector unions into question. So why not disarm them by removing their collective-bargaining rights?

What a great issue moving forward, especially in a time of fiscal austerity.

Well, maybe. You’ve just got to hope that no one untangles the ideological assumptions from the facts and notices, for example, that Wisconsin didn’t have a deficit until the current governor assumed office and cut taxes.

Or that the groups he exempted — police and firefighters — happen to have supported his election.

Or that the average state or local government employee in this country retires after a career of service with an annual pension of $19,000, 80 percent of it from his own contributions.

Or, that when education, skills and comparable jobs are taken into account, public-sector workers earn less than their private-sector counterparts.

Or that in tough economic times, average citizens need public services more than ever.

Public-sector unions are the new face of American labor, having become the majority within unions in 2009, and so this struggle has enormous significance for the future of the labor movement. Government workers now are organized at 35 percent, five times that of the private sector.

This, combined with the tough economy, assures that the conservative challenge to public-sector unions will be with us for some time to come.

My thought is that 18 months from now, the Republican presidential nominee may well be ruing the “victories” in Wisconsin and Ohio and elsewhere — or hoping that voters have short memories.

The last time Republicans unseated an incumbent Democrat was 1980, when Ronald Reagan attracted the votes of millions of blue-collar conservatives/Reagan Democrats. And George W. Bush won with their support as well. To win this time around, the Republican candidate will need to make similar inroads, especially given the concentration of such voters in swing states in the Heartland — Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana and, yes, Wisconsin. And lest we forget, more than one-quarter of union members are Republicans.

At this juncture, the prospective Republican field can be divided into two categories — governors and superstars (with some of the latter having themselves formerly occupied a governor’s mansion.)

Several of those governors were compiling impressive records as chief executives, but now risk being seen as extremists willing to make scapegoats of some of their most respected citizens to achieve ideological goals not shared by a majority of their constituents.

But it may be the high-profile figures who get hurt the most by Wisconsin. As a 2008 Republican hopeful, Mike Huckabee spoke critically of a GOP grown “oblivious to the working-class people” and focused on Wall Street while ignoring Main Street.

So what tune is Mr. Huckabee sounding these days? Here’s a small sample of recent sound bites: “The ungodly influence that the public-sector unions have in this White House is scandalous … . This is a president who wouldn’t be sitting in that office had it not been for public-employee unions who rallied to him in a significant way … This wild group of public employees.”

Is this really the same politician who became the first Republican presidential contender ever to address a National Education Association convention — winning several standing ovations and the New Hampshire NEA’s endorsement and telling me later how much that support, along with backing from the machinists union, meant to him?

Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty, the erstwhile advocate of “Sam’s Club” working people, demands that Wisconsin Democratic legislators who went to bat for teachers and firefighters be removed from office for “dereliction of duty.”

Reagan won over blue-collar swing voters based on his optimistic outlook and his attacks on welfare recipients soaking average taxpayers. Somehow, assailing the bargaining rights of EMTs and cops and teachers, or aiming to resolve a fiscal crisis caused by the machinations of Wall Street and the banks by demanding sacrifices from firefighters and nurses and snow-removal workers, may not play quite the same in Peoria.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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