Unless you have spent the month of February under a rock, you know that for the past two weeks, massive protests have sprung up in Wisconsin in response to a component of Gov. Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill,. The legislation would permanently prohibit public employees in Wisconsin from “collectively bargaining” for wages or benefits beyond the rate of inflation. For a bunch of overworked Columbia students during midterms week, a natural reaction to these protests might be: “I have never given a single thought to Wisconsin or its public-sector employees before, so why should I start now?”
While Gov. Walker’s decision to strip state workers of their right to unionize may help close the budget deficit in Wisconsin in 2011, it also represents an ideological refusal to invest in the public-sector institutions that are necessary for creating a more just and equitable society in the future. If this bill passes, it could set a very dangerous precedent for like-minded governors around the country to take basic bargaining rights away from public employees. This trend would land a damaging blow to the government’s ability to give Americans a level playing field on which to compete, ultimately increasing the ever-growing gap in wealth and income that currently plagues society.
Gov. Walker is proposing the Budget Repair Bill in response to estimates that, should the budget remained unchanged from last year, Wisconsin’s deficit will grow to $3.6 billion by 2013. In order to help close this deficit, the bill mandates that state employees pay half the cost of their current pensions and twice the amount that they are currently paying for health care premiums. Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate and the leaders of the most visible union in the protest—the teachers union—have said that they would agree to these cuts. Walker, however, insists that they must also forfeit their right to collective bargaining. This means that if in the future a group of teachers wishes to ask for a raise in benefits or wages, it could only petition the school board as individuals. Their right to come together and collectively bargain with the school board as a unit, with the ultimate threat of a strike as a bargaining tool, would be completely stripped. Any noncompliant teachers could be fired.
Despite Walker’s assertion that his priority in cutting funding and bargaining rights from state workers is closing the budget deficit, he has passed a series of corporate tax cuts in order to stimulate economic growth in the state. While tax cuts are perhaps necessary to spur an economy, a functioning, well-compensated group of teachers in the public schools is equally necessary for an educated group of future citizens to maintain the economy into the next generation. So why has Walker chosen the former, while permanently stripping the basic right of negotiation from the latter?
Currently, income inequality is at its highest level in 100 years. Taxes, at least at the federal level, are also the lowest that they have been in almost 100 years. Whether or not you believe that the private sector is the essential driving force behind the American economy, it is clear that a free market and lower taxes do not naturally produce a level playing field upon which any American child can have an equal chance to succeed in the world. On his web site, Gov. Walker says that past governors have “done little to address the long-term financial challenges facing our state,” implying that by stripping state workers of the right to unionize, he is finally doing something to address these challenges. Does he truly believe that by denying the basic rights of public educators—thus making the teaching profession an even more grueling and less financially rewarding field than it already is—he is helping to make the future of Wisconsin brighter? Does he think that by cutting corporate taxes, while eliminating the rights and benefits of teachers and workers, he is helping to give all future Wisconsinites equal opportunity?
The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no. Gov. Walker’s bill is the fulfillment of an ideology that has forsaken any attempt to create a more egalitarian society through governmental institutions and asserts that the people who create change at the grassroots level of our nation do not even deserve the basic right of collective negotiation. The spread of this dangerously cynical ideology across the nation would make it extremely difficult for even some of our most basic social services, most notably public education, to function effectively. So why should you, as a member of the Columbia community, care about the public sector’s ability to create a more just society? If you plan to use the benefits and education that you receive at this wonderful Ivy League school to help give more people the kind of opportunities that you have had, you must know that the ideology Gov. Walker is advancing in his Budget Repair Bill is going to make your job very difficult.
Nick Bloom is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in English with a history concentration. He is a programmer at WKCR. Bursting Bubbles from the Inside runs alternate Tuesdays.