Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wisconsin's Scott Walker Goes Too Far

By Edward Koch

I’m back in the office after a 16-day cruise from Buenos Aires in Miami. Preceding the trip, I wondered what I would do on such a long voyage, and assumed I would go crazy from boredom. Someone once said that being on a boat is like being in jail, with a chance of drowning.

But no. The cruise was a delightful and perfect vacation. While away I kept up with current affairs by reading The New York Times, which was faxed daily to the ship.

During my 16 days abroad, the world went crazy. We saw revolutions, minor and major, take place in a number of Arab countries. Some have been successful in turning out their authoritarian leaders, e.g., Egypt and Tunisia, and others are seeing the fight go on, e.g., Bahrain and Libya. More Arab countries may yet be involved.

The other revolution is taking place here in the United States, started in Wisconsin by its governor, Scott Walker. He wants to eliminate some collective bargaining rights for city and state employees in Wisconsin.

Collective bargaining for employees in the private sector in the United States goes back to 1886.

Wikipedia states, “The industrial revolution brought a swell of labor organizing in the U.S. The American Federation of Labor was formed in 1886, providing unprecedented bargaining powers for a variety of workers. The Railway Labor Act (1926) required employers to bargain collectively with unions. In 1930, the Supreme Court, in the case of Texas & N.O.R. Co. v. Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, upheld the act's prohibition of employer interference in the selection of bargaining representatives. In 1962, President Kennedy signed an executive order giving public-employee unions the right to collectively bargain with federal government agencies.”

At its high point in the private sector, unions represented 35 percent of American workers. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union membership in the U.S. was approximately 12 percent of all workers, of which more than half are in the public sector. How the mighty have fallen.

In most jurisdictions, government workers who are permitted to unionize do not have the right to strike. The Taylor Law in New York imposes severe penalties for striking. Workers are charged two days’ pay for each day on strike or on slowdown, and unions can be precluded from having the municipality deduct union membership fees from salary checks. Many workers won’t pay their dues without the benefit of this deduction.

One of the greatest blows to government workers’ unions was delivered by President Ronald Reagan when PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) illegally struck in 1981 and he fired all of the controllers. I thought he should have given them one more opportunity to return to work or be fired, but he did not. Nevertheless, on reflection, and because I served as mayor and had to contend with illegal strikes, I agreed with the president’s action.

A city is different from a private business. It cannot close down and move elsewhere. It must continue to deliver essential services — fire, police, water, education, etc.
I believe that union leadership has gotten much, but not all of the message, which is that the public is fed up with union excesses, particularly in their resistance to their members paying a reasonable part of their pension and health costs, as do most private sector workers.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Walker has succeeded in getting the unions’ attention, and most of the people in Wisconsin are behind him. Pension and healthcare costs are key factors in that state’s huge budget deficits, as they are in many others, including New York City and state.

Union leadership in Wisconsin has agreed to the copayments the governor has demanded. But his ongoing attempts to end their right to collectively bargain with city or state employers on pensions, benefits, and working conditions — permitted in the private sector — goes much too far.

According to The New York Times of Feb. 25, 2011, “A USA Today/Gallup poll found that 61 percent of the 1,000 adults they surveyed on Monday opposed laws taking away the bargaining power of public-employee unions.”

The goal for each of us should be justice. When it comes to labor unions, justice, in my view, means preserving the right to collective bargaining for state and city employees, coupled with laws prohibiting and penalizing illegal strikes.

Now, back to the Arab revolutions taking place in the Mideast.

These uprisings clearly demonstrate that it is not the issue of Israel that is rocking the Arab world, but the presence of arbitrary and repressive regimes.

Of course, we should all hope and pray for peaceful outcomes and a victory for democratic governments, yet to be formed. However, we should not forget that Arab countries have never had real democracies and that many fanatical religious opposition groups long to fill the void left by the departed dictators.

These groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that is the ideological forebear of al-Qaida, seek to re-establish a caliphate from Spain to Indonesia, incorporating more than one billion Muslims under the leadership of one religious leader — the caliph — who would impose on everyone Muslim religious law: Shariah, with its barbaric penalties that include death for offenses such as adultery and amputations for stealing.

But we are living in extraordinary times. There is danger in the air, but there is also hope that real and positive changes are taking place.

I’m rooting for the spread of democracy in the full sense of the term, which includes not only free and fair elections, but also democratic institutions and the protection of individual liberties.

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