Looking at the headlines today, I wondered how many people were as taken aback by Scott Walker's threats against public sector unions as I was. Does Walker's apparent confidence on the issue suggest that he doesn't anticipate any meaningful political backlash?
"Anything from the decertify all the way through modifications of the current laws in place," Walker said at a luncheon sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club at the Newsroom Pub.
By-and-large, the issue of unions is hardly present in the American political dialogue anymore. People make a big fuss about their campaign contributions, however, there is little talk about the rights of workers to organize, at least in Wisconsin.
More importantly, however, public sector unions have a harder time winning public sympathy than their private sector counterparts. Whereas private sector unions are bargaining over distribution of a fixed pie, public sector unions are often pressuring for funds that aren't there to begin with and must come from new taxes.
That's why on the issue of public sector unions, the public is likely to see Walker's antagonistic stance as fair, rather than tyrannical.
The only way the Democrats can win this argument is if they convey to the public the benefits of a strong and well-compensated public workforce. Should firefighters and police officers not be allowed to unionize? We don't hear the Republicans talking about them.
Republicans in recent campaigns have succeeded at portraying everything that is government as evil. Essentially, they push the notion that those who do not serve the government in non-armed positions are pariahs. They are not due anything for the service they render to the public, and perhaps most ironically, if they're laid off and forced to live on unemployment compensation, it's to the economic benefit of society.
It's tough to tell how the clash between public sector workers and Walker will play out, but the former will not win simply by "sick-ins" or other forms of strikes. The state of Wisconsin needs to hear the philosophical case for the public sector -- one that JFK and LBJ made skillfully once upon a time.
But make no mistake. There is trouble-a-lurkin' for Walker in the fight against state workers. Remember that it was Tommy Thompson and the Republican legislature that approved many of the generous pension benefits that Walker campaigned so hard against.