To hear Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tell it, the Badger State is “broke.” So he has just rolled out a $30 billion budget stuffed with radical cuts to erase a $3.6 billion deficit, and coupled with a heavy-handed bid to hobble civil service unions. The incendiary package has triggered a political uproar, and concern about spillover here.
As Brenda Shillington, a Toronto representative for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, told CBC Radio on Wednesday, “It’s something that could happen here,” though probably in a more incremental way as governments pare costs. Wisconsin is well beyond contracting out garbage pickup.
Walker, a newly-elected Republican hardliner, has taken on organized labour with a partisan zeal that has many Americans, not just Democrats, recoiling in disbelief. As the Star’s Robert Benzie reports, workers have besieged the legislature. Even U.S. President Barack Obama has been drawn in. He fears that civil servants are being “denigrated or vilified,” and their rights are being infringed upon.
It’s not an idle concern. As Tuesday’s budget shows, the pain of Walker’s overall $4.2 billion two-year cost-cutting won’t be spread equitably through Wisconsin’s 3 million-strong taxpaying workforce. Public service workers, who number 170,000, will carry much of the load. These teachers, civil servants, health workers and others will shell out nearly $1.5 billion more in health care and pension premiums. That is designed to offset steep cuts in transfers to schools and local government.
At the same time Walker is exempting police and firefighters, two groups the Republicans court, from sharing the pain. And he is handing out $200 million or more in tax breaks to private enterprise.
Yet despite this unevenness, in the U.S. climate of belt-tightening Wisconsin public workers are resigned to pay the higher health and pension costs. They recognize that on average American private-sector workers pay even more. They’re resigned to do their bit to balance the state books.
Where Walker has gone from budget balancing to labour bashing is with his “budget repair” legislation that guts public workers’ union rights. He proposes to hobble their ability negotiate wages by limiting future raises to inflation, except in the unlikely case that the voters agree in a referendum to more. Unions would lose the right to bargain benefits such as pensions and health. They have to vote annually to recertify their unions. And union dues would no longer be deducted at source.
To many, including Democrat state senators who have bolted to Illinois to deny Walker the quorum he needs to get a vote on the measures, this looks more like Tea Party labour-bashing than prudent cost containment. And Wisconsin isn’t unique. Ohio and other states are targeting civil service unions. Yet a recent national poll found that more Americans sided with Wisconsin’s civil servants, than with Walker. And another found that Americans, by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, oppose weakening public workers’ bargaining rights.
All this is a cautionary tale for Canadian policy-makers. Conservatives may be tempted to go the Wisconsin route. But that would be folly. In part because Canadian taxpayers rightly recognize the value of funding public services, our governments are not in as dire straits. What belt-tightening needs to be done here ought to be managed without placing crippling burdens on local authorities, bashing the public service or kneecapping union
rights. We’re all in this together.