As the nation endeavors to usher in an era featuring a "new tone" in politics, AFSCME's Marty Beil thinks the old tone suits him just fine, thank you.
In December, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker shocked his Democratic colleagues by voting against a last-minute attempt to ram through 19 public employee union contracts. Beil, the executive director of AFSCME Council 24, representing state workers, responded by calling Decker a "whore." "Not a prostitute, a whore. W-H-O-R-E," Beil proudly intoned, as if he were a pimply middle-schooler conquering a spelling bee word.
Later, when state Sen. Jeff Plale, a moderate Democrat who also voted against the contracts, accepted a job in Republican Gov. Scott Walker's administration, Beil turned this tried-but-true meme on Walker.
"When he says [Wisconsin is] 'open for business' and then appoints people like Plale," Beil clucked, "he's obviously saying that he doesn't draw the line at the world's oldest profession."
It's old hat for Beil, who in February 2010, in a radio chat with the now-infamous "Sly" on WTDY, Beil called former Tommy Thompson administration secretaries Jim Klauser and George Lightbourn "prostitutes." This time he was upset about a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute report highlighting the discrepancy between public and private pensions. Lightbourn is WPRI's president, and Klauser serves as chairman of its board.
So, for the record, it appears Beil's hierarchy of insults runs the gamut between "whore" (the worst), "prostitute" (not quite as bad) and "purveyor of the world's oldest profession." Yet some might even be tempted to include "paid union lobbyist" in their "pyramid of prostitution." It's a wonder Charlie Sheen hasn't given Beil a call to go party in a hotel room.
Looked at another way, Beil's obstinacy is understandable. Public employees are backed into a corner, primarily because of generous benefits granted them during the early 1970s, when government workers routinely took their grievances to the streets.
Between 1970 and 1982, local government workers went on strike 110 times; 90% of these strikes took place before 1977, when the Legislature passed a landmark mediation-arbitration law meant to settle contract disputes.
During this wild time, many local governments acquiesced to employee union demands, rather than face protracted work stoppages. During the early '70s, most local governments began paying the entire portion of public employees' pension contributions - a benefit that has drawn Walker's undivided attention.
Under the current Wisconsin Retirement System, state and local government employees build their pensions through both employer and employee contributions. State statutes require an employee contribution to the retirement fund, but in virtually every case, the government employer picks up the employee's share of the contribution. Thus taxpayers are on the hook for both the employee's and employer's share of these future retirement benefits - usually around 10% of that employee's paycheck.
In a poll conducted by WPRI last November, 80% of respondents said they believed government employees should contribute to their own pensions. (In the poll, 33% of respondents considered themselves Democrats, while only 23% called themselves Republicans.)
Now, with the state facing a $3.3 billion shortfall, the Legislature will likely soon put the word "employee" back in the term "employee contribution."
Public unions argue that their benefits are much more generous than the private sector's because they are paid less in salary. Yet there's no evidence to suggest that's the case.
The state's "Facts About Wisconsin" website reports that the average pre-benefit salary of state workers for 2009 was $51,305 per year - while the average salary of the public at large stood at $38,655. To be fair, these numbers aren't entirely comparable, as state employees tend to be more educated, but nobody's going to be holding a telethon for government workers anytime soon.
Take the largest group of government employees in Wisconsin: public teachers. According to the Department of Public Instruction, the average state teacher in 2010 cost school districts $74,844 in salary and benefits. Private school teachers make a fraction of that amount, without the rigorous protections like tenure and stringent licensure requirements to keep people from competing for their jobs.
So Marty Beil will continue to do what he's paid to do, but he'll be doing it against a tidal wave of public and legislative sentiment. He may even continue to call people names.
But being a "whore" means you're paid for your work. If Beil continues to agitate in such a juvenile manner, the Legislature would be happy to screw his members for free.
Christian Schneider lives in Madison, works for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.