You may not think of Wisconsin as the epicenter of the labor movement. And yet, thousands of protestors converged on the Wisconsin state house in Madison. The truth is there a long history with organized labor in the state, and that makes Governor Scott Walker’s decision to take on the public employee unions all the more interesting.
So let’s look at who’s wrong, who’s right, and what’s right as the battle over the Wisconsin budget crisis plays out.
The short answer is most of the people involved.
• Organized labor. You made a stand on the wrong issue and missed an opportunity to be a hero. No one likes to see their benefits cut. I get that, but you can’t make a stand on that when overall unemployment is at levels not seen since the great depression. The people who pay your salary have lost their jobs, seen their out-of-pocket benefit costs increase, and watched as their employer stopped virtually all contributions to your retirement. How can you complain about a plan that protects jobs? And, how can you encourage your members to call in sick to protest while the people paying your salary watch on television?
• The employees who called in sick to protest. You lost your credibility. No, you are not interested in doing what’s best for the children of Wisconsin if you are a teacher and called in sick to protest. Take a vacation day or even time off without pay, but don’t lie about being sick when you aren’t. You have every right to express your opinion, but don’t tell us that you are acting in the public’s best interest when you are being selfish.
• The protestors who came from outside the state. Stay home. This isn’t your fight. I don’t care which side you are on. You are making things worse.
• The Democrats who hid to prevent the vote . Do your job. Yes, you are going to lose the vote. In the meantime, you are creating a potentially dangerous situation for citizens and your colleagues in the legislature. I’m from Texas where vanishing legislators to stall a vote is an art form, but at least they have never left 60,000 protestors in the capitol putting their colleagues at risk.
• The Republicans pushing this legislation without regard to precedent or impact. You are doing the right thing to address the state’s budget shortfall, but you are creating barriers that will make it impossible to forge any bi-partisan cooperation on important issues facing the state. You are in danger of being viewed in the same light as the Democrats elected to Congress in Washington. You are going to win this battle, and you may miss the opportunity to win the war. The government employees that you are alienating are responsible for delivering service to the citizens you represent. Don’t forget that you can mandate their compliance, but the commitment that leads to amazing service is volunteered.
• The media who substituted fact with commentary and the public who believe them. I heard one commentator accuse the President of the United States of anarchy, another report that the demonstrators are breaking the law, and another accuse the Wisconsin Governor and Legislature of violating the fundamental civil rights of free speech and the right to bargain. These were all reported as fact, and there are people on both sides who take it to be true. Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow are paid to give their opinion. They both do it very well. But, their opinions aren’t necessarily fact and shame on us if we take them as such.
• The Governor and legislature. They are showing courage to address systemic issues that are putting every government entity in jeopardy. Wisconsin is doing what should have been done in many jurisdictions years ago. Your implementation isn’t flawless, but your goals of changing the discussion on government’s long-term obligations to employees is laudable.
• The bargaining units and their members. Collective bargaining is an important right that must be preserved. Many of the workplace safeguards and standards we now take for granted are the result of bargaining. Likewise, the right to protest is woven into the fabric of our culture. The United States began as a protest movement. My issue is how you did it not that you did it. At a time when governments throughout the world are jailing people for protest, we must celebrate and protect that ability here.
The Way Forward
• Republican majority. Stop trying to forever alter the nature of collective bargaining. Include a provision to negotiate in good faith on the inclusion of benefits cost in collective bargaining AFTER you have taken action to resolve the immediate problem. You may not like unions, but you can’t use this crisis as a tool to impose your personal opinion and then act surprised when others push back.
• Democratic minority. Go back to work. You have no opportunity or credibility to influence the discussion if you don’t have the courage to participate in the conversation.
• Union leadership. It’s time to be a partner not an adversary.
• Workers who are calling in to protest. Go back to work and accept responsibility for calling in sick when you aren’t. Continue to voice your opinion, but understand reality even if you don’t accept it.
• Doctors who are writing false statements about employees being unable to work. Stop it. You are sacrificing your professionalism.
• Media who are reporting this 24 X 7. Go follow some other story. This one needs to rotate off of the news cycle.
What’s Right and What Leaders Can Learn
Power exercised through position is fleeting. Power based on principle builds trust and credibility. Leaders on both sides of this issue need to stop worrying about their position and start focusing on the core principles of this issue.
• Government – both elected officials and appointed employees – have an obligation to protect the long-term sustainability of the service they provide. Government employees have an obligation to look at their service as more than a job. Elected officials have an obligation to treat employees as partners in delivering service to citizens rather than adversaries.
• Collective bargaining is part of the fabric in Wisconsin. That isn’t true in every state, but it is here. You can’t expect to permanently destroy that precedent without some pushback regardless of the state of emergency.
• It’s not your money, and it is not an unlimited source of funding. Citizens decide their decision through elections, and they have spoken. If you don’t like their choice, get your candidate elected; move to a location where your views are the majority; or learn to live with the fact that your role is that of vocal minority.
Here are three lessons every leader can learn from watching this drama play out:
1. Don’t waste a crisis, and don’t abuse a crisis. Crisis is an excellent motivator for change, and it is a lousy reason to impose your ideology.
2. Don’t assume that everyone who disagrees with your position has different interests. My guess is that both sides of this conflict have an interest in protecting the state from long-term financial problems. Unfortunately, both sides appear more interested in protecting their position than achieving their interest.
3. “Because we can” is not always the right answer. The Democrats in the U.S. Congress used this argument after the 2008 election that swept them into power. It cost them the House of Representatives in 2010. The “because we can” approach to decision making often has unintended and severe consequences over the long term.