One can only marvel at how masterfully Gov. Scott Walker gutted Wisconsin's public employee unions. This was deft work, surgically precise in its neutering of 50 years of collective bargaining rights.
Walker tightly limited bargainable items, made union dues voluntary, ended the lifeblood of payroll deductions for dues collection and mandated yearly certification votes for unions trying to represent public workers.
The last item is particularly devilish. To be certified, the union must receive not just a simple majority of the votes, but 51% of the entire workforce, including those who don't bother to vote at all.
Reality check: Walker himself wouldn't be governor today if he had to meet that threshold. Candidate Walker won 52.3% of the vote last November, but that was just 25.8% of the voting-age electorate. David Ahrens, a labor activist, studied the legislative numbers and found that only two of 132 lawmakers reached the 51% threshold and just one in a contested election.
For a lot of people, the Republican crackdown reeked of unfairness. This is a major reason Walker and the GOP legislative majority are nervously playing defense today: They seemed downright thuggish, to use a favorite conservative pejorative, in beating down the unions.
Locked in the fight of a lifetime, Wisconsin unionists and Democratic activists have hope despite heavy odds. The Democrats may capture the state Senate in the recall elections. Walker may even be expelled from office before his term ends. But here's the rub: Union backers are kidding themselves if they think that a return to the status quo will save their bacon.
Simply put, sympathy for battered union members doesn't mean support for the old union agenda. Gallup and Pew polls show a sharp decline in union favorability ratings. And Walker was right when he said that unions can selfishly manipulate the political system to enrich themselves. (Exhibit A is the Milwaukee County pension scandal.) He was also right to think the union agenda can be at cross-purposes to the public interest. Walker's mistake - to his and the state's detriment - was to fumble the fix.
That leaves an immensely important question still unanswered: Can a meaningful public-employee unionism emerge in the 21st century?
I can't pretend to answer that question in the space of a column, but let me lay out a couple of ideas. The first is that unions need to deeply rethink their form and practice.
For reasons that are both increasingly irrelevant and counterproductive, public employee unions are organized like the blue-collar industrial unions I grew up with in Kenosha. That is, union work is largely regimented per the contract, and seniority - not merit - often trumps other considerations in pay and advancement.
This is a problematic approach in a calling like teaching. John Matthews, the head of Madison Teachers Inc., may be the last great union leader in Wisconsin. But to have built the union's foundation on a Byzantine 179-page master contract that, among other things, tilts pay to senior (and sometimes running-on-fumes) teachers at the expense of talented young teachers is not good.
Unions need to embrace merit and high-quality performance as core values. They need to lighten up on work rules, as Joel Rogers, the head of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, says. They need a mission statement focused on public service.
Rebecca Ryan, a consultant who specializes in explaining the millennial-generation workforce to puzzled business and community groups, puts it this way: "Unions need a platform other than self-preservation. What is the greater good they stand for?"
When I was a kid that question would have stupefied my father, who was a loyal Jimmy Hoffa Teamster. A union got you a good wage and benefits and kept the boss from busting your chops. But my dad's world is long gone. Unions represent only 7% of private-sector jobs. Somewhere between 21 and 40 million people, meanwhile, work for themselves in the so-called 1099 economy, many with no benefits at all. Need I mention the economic fallout of the long post-recession hangover? Public unions have got their work cut out to be relevant in the 21st century.
Just as it took anti-communist Richard Nixon to unexpectedly open the American door to China, it may take unexpected tough love from Democratic politicians to help relaunch public employee unions - taking aim, for example, at pension excesses, featherbedding, restrictive work rules and the like. We already see it happening with reform-minded Democratic officials in New York and Massachusetts.
Rogers, meanwhile, sees "enormous opportunity" for unions to work to improve the quality of government services. "I don't think they've begun to scratch the surface," he says, citing tremendous dissatisfaction with public education as an issue where teachers could lead reform efforts.
Marvelous point except for one thing: Teacher unions have steadfastly battled most educational experiments. "The unions should have been upfront in proposing reforms instead of constantly resisting them," says John Gee, a self-described progressive Democrat who used to run the Wisconsin Charter School Association. Heavily invested in preserving the status quo, "the unions lost a tremendous opportunity to initiate their own reform program," he points out.
That is the problem. That is the challenge. Public-employee unions have played a vital role in sustaining the American middle class. But can they look beyond their material self-interest to promote excellence and change even if it means a bit less for their members?
That is a life-or-death question.
Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.