This column is titled "Purple Nation" because I have tried when I write to see both sides of a "Blue State liberal" vs. "Red State conservative" argument and, where I disagree, I do so respectfully, without impugning the other party's motives or using personal attack words.
But in observing and listening to the Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, concerning his confrontation with the state and local government employees unions, I cannot avoid the conclusion that he is someone who says one thing and means another.
On Tuesday in the Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will quoted Governor Walker as saying a day or so before, "I am convinced this is about money."
But wait: several days before, the government employees gave in to all the Governor's monetary demands: They agreed to the Governor's demand to increase contributions to pension plans (from 1% now to 5.7%) and on contributions to the cost of their health care premiums (from 6% to 12.6%). In short, if there were collective bargaining, the union would have conceded and the Governor would have won all his demands.
So everyone now knows, despite his words to the contrary, that the true goal of the Governor is to destroy public employee unions. It's not about money -- despite his repeating that in a statewide "fireside chat" Monday night.
The legislation the Governor and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature are ready to pass (but for the absence of 14 Democratic State Senators, who continue to be out-of-state and thus, denying a quorum to enable the law to be enacted) would ban collective bargaining on benefits and working conditions and any wages above the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Any salary increases above the CPI would be precluded from collective bargaining and require a statewide referendum -- which could be a year or more from even taking place. This would mean that the most the unions could bargain for were salaries that keep their members running in place. Obviously, there would be no need for a union if that were the case.
But why should private sector have this right and not public sector unions? Conservatives argue there are at least two important distinctions. First, governments are monopolies, so allegedly government employees don't have to worry about governments going out of business. But governments can lay off public employees just as private companies can -- and indeed, that is what Governor Walker is threatening to do (as many as 1,500 government worker jobs in the next several days).
Second, as Mr. Will put it in his column, unlike management in the private sector, he wrote, executives in government are "not disciplined by the need to make a profit."
But wait: Isn't George Will talking about Governor Walker -- the same man whose fortitude he took an entire column to praise? Isn't Mr. Will saying that the same Governor Walker doesn't have the "discipline" to engage in tough but fair collective bargaining and say no to excessive government employee union demands?
Moreover, public employees, unlike their private sector counterparts, are subject to bans on the right to strike in most states -- certainly by public safety workers and teachers. And in many states without collective bargaining rights deficits are soaring just as much if not more. So this seems more like scapegoating against easy targets in the era of anti-government Tea Party protests than a rational distinction.
I believe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right when he said, on May 8, 1937, "The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy."
So I would respectfully suggest to Governor Walker: Take responsibility as the strong executive leader you claim to be. Rather than attempting to hide behind a new law singling out government employees, go to the bargaining table and find the discipline, to use George Will's word, to be tough but fair in a process of collective bargaining that FDR described as an essential component of our democracy.
Update: I unintentionally was misleading in using a quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt in support of collective bargaining in yesterday's blog, but it was unintentional. The quote from FDR stood up for the principle that Americans have a fundamental right under our constitution to freely associate, organize and to designate an individual to negotiate on their behalf. He said that was the distinction between our system of government and despotism -- and that was my reason for choosing his quote.
But the perils of Internet research are borne out here, especially when done quickly. In fact, as many readers of my blog have pointed out, FDR was again, in principle, the concept of government employee unions and their right to collective bargaining. He said "the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted the public service." Then he added that "I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place" in the public sector. "A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government."
So it is clear that what FDR objected to was the right to "strike" by public employees -- and as I noted in my column, in virtually every state, public employees unions representing police, fire, and often teachers, are forbidden to strike; and it is not clear that FDR would oppose just collective bargaining and union rights under the law combined with the prohibition of the right to strike.
But the left blogosphere, as usually, engages in disingenuous spin just as the right blogosphere does. The fact is, I used FDR to support the proposition that government employees unions are justified and that there are no clear and obvious distinctions, to me at least, between them and private sector unions; and indeed, they can be seen as far weaker since they are often subject to a prohibition on the right to strike, which private sector unions are not. At the very least I disagree with the premise of FDR's statement that there is a distinction between people who are in public service vis-à-vis the right to form a union, which after all is implicitly for the purpose of collective bargaining, and I should have done further research to add FDR's full position - even if I wanted to argue that he was focused on the "right to strike" and it is unclear whether he would have supported state laws (in many but not all states) allowing public employees to form a union and collective bargaining, with arbitration of stalemate the alternative to the right to strike, which is at least universally denied those in public safety positions.
I still have not been refuted by anyone that Governor Walker is not telling the truth when he keeps repeating that his position and the Wisconsin legislation is about money. The Wisconsin public employees have surrendered on all of Governor Walker's money demands. This is about Governor Walker not having the guts to stand up to the unions in a collective bargaining session and say no. He wasn't willing to do that when he served as Milwaukee County Executive, saying the prior collective bargaining agreement was too expensive. So why didn't he wait for the contract to expire and stand up to the unions and demand through far and tough collective bargaining that they back down. In fact, in Wisconsin, he chooses to ignore his own unwillingness to stand up and say no to excessive union demands, because that would be conceding the right to unionize and collectively bargain. And that is the ideology that he is fighting for -- not money. He has a right to his opinion and his ideology; not a right to mislead people on the facts.
Lanny Davis is the principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management and is a partner with Josh Block in the strategic communications and public affairs company Davis-Block. He served as President Clinton's Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).