One of the most remarkable things about the standoff in Wisconsin is that it has reignited a debate rarely heard for the last half-century: Are public-employee unions in the public interest?
Interestingly, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democratic icon and strong champion of the labor movement, emphatically thought not.
A shrewd tactician who loved his country, FDR recognized that public-employee unions are a different breed.
"All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," he declared.
In the private sector, management has a strong incentive to negotiate pragmatically — the need to maintain a profit to stay in business. Customers have a choice of buying cheaper products and services elsewhere.
In the public sector, such restraints disappear. The employees — through their campaign contributions and organizing activities — often get to determine who sits on the other side of the negotiating table from them.
When politicians who owe their power to public employees conduct so-called negotiations with them, taxpayers are left utterly defenseless. Since government is a monopoly, citizens are not permitted to shop around for another one that negotiates better contracts and provides cheaper services. No, citizens must simply pay, under the threat of arrest and imprisonment.
Thus, politicians can give away the store, bank on the unions' support in the next election, and hand the bill over to someone else: You.
We've seen the results of such one-sided "negotiations" — early retirements, pensions with annual cost-of-living boosts, free health care for life. And while the politicians retain their power, and public-employee-union bosses get fat, private-sector workers find their quality of life steadily eroded by higher taxes that do little to provide basic services or help the neediest.
It's a perfect circle: Public-employee unions get increasing amounts of money from the taxpayers, and use it to defeat the taxpayers' interests.
Well, not exactly perfect. The problem is that the victims eventually run out of money.
In state after state, responsible leaders from both parties are pointing out that these giveaways are unsustainable.
In Democratic Wisconsin last November, voters tried to shift gears, electing a Republican governor and legislators who promised to rein in the unions and their demands. This has led to massive protests by the losers. All 14 of the state's Democratic senators fled the state to deny their chamber a quorum, thus blocking the majority from enacting the people's will.
Similar clashes are erupting in Indiana and Ohio.
It's no wonder. Vast amounts of money and political power are at stake, and politicians can hardly abandon the special interests that provide them crucial dollars needed to win elections.
According to OpenSecrets.org, 13 of the top 21 "all-time donors" to elections between 1998 and 2010 were unions, and on average, they gave well over 90 percent of their donations to Democrats. This is big-time money, and it buys politicians.
Until Democrats reorient their party away from these interests, they will not be inclined to stand up to them. Indeed, they will help public employees wage war against taxpayers who are pleading for reform and relief, even if that war takes the form of personal attacks, intimidation and violent rhetoric. As Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Cambridge, told cheering public employees at a recent rally: "Every once in awhile you need to get out on the streets and get a little bloody when necessary." (He later a apologized for the remark.)
Still, everyone has slammed into a wall of reality — massive debts at the federal, state and local levels; high unemployment; strapped taxpayers; gold-plated benefits for the government class that the private sector can't imaginably afford.
This won't go away. The protests and efforts to quash representative democracy will only increase, and spread throughout the country. Something has to give. Let's hope it is not freedom and the rule of law.
FDR understood the end game: "I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of government employees," he stated.
He argued that the expressed will of the people, through elections, provides government employees the protections they need over time.
"The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress," FDR observed. The same is true in state legislatures.
Whatever happens next in Wisconsin, the financial nightmare confronting government at all levels promises that we're going to be hearing more of this debate in the months and years to come.
• • •
Edward Achorn writes for the Providence Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.