Monday, March 7, 2011

A Thought Concerning Wisconsin

A striking feature of recent events in Wisconsin is the lack of distinction between public- and private-sector unions in the dialectic of either side. Both protesters and defenders of governor Walker and his party seem to be speak/announce/paint signs as if their were 100% pro- or anti-union, without bothering to explore the possibilities for compromise inherent in the subtler points of public opinion. I believe teachers' unions, in particular, are the fulcrum on which a deal could turn, for reasons I'll get to in a moment.

The average semi-centrist in either camp thinks something along these lines:

"Unions of, say, factory workers DO NOT strike me as inherently objectionable. I may think they've gotten greedy, but I'd balk at denying them the right to bargain at all -- they're private citizens with private employers, let them negotiate contracts however they please."

"On the other hand, letting public employee unions bargain like that DOES strike me as objectionable on some level -- maybe because of the incestuous relationship between the fiefdoms of any state-level bureaucracy and the political bodies with whom they negotiate. I respect police and firefighters a great deal, but letting them strike is irresponsible and risks public safety; as for, say, DMV employees, they should keep the traditional trade-off of lower pay/benefits for the inherent job security of working for a government body."

I think the majority of Wisconsinites have views at least vaguely akin to those, though they may vary in the particulars; the problem is, the respective sides don't want to be heard giving any ground, for fear the other side will go too far with it. They need an issue where both sides can claim victory to their base, breaking the ice and allowing them to at least TALK about compromises for the rest.

So here's my suggestion: kill collective bargaining rights for every state employee -- but cease to classify teachers as state employees.

Before everyone who isn't a libertarian deletes Pragma from their bookmarks, let me hasten to add I don't mean privatizing the entire educational system -- at least, not in the sense one would usually use the word "privatize." What I'm proposing is that Wisconsin schools be incorporated in the same sense as small municipalities, on a district-by-district level. They are already governed this way; elected boards run the schools and property taxes support them. The change would be in name only -- whatever money the state spends on education would simply be reclassified as general district funding rather than state employee salaries. Teachers would retain the ability to bargain collectively, but now with school boards rather than the state.

This is obviously imperfect in many ways, but we live in an imperfect world. Let me tell you why I think it could actually work.

Teacher pay is THE rallying cause for the Democratic base. I believe the alliance between supporters of private sector unions and public sector unions would become far less dogmatic if teacher unions were off the table. Non-union Democrats would be less likely to support the current standoff with the teacher unions and their lobbyists sated (again, think about comparative sympathy towards schoolteachers versus DMV clerks in the public mind). The logjam on the Republican side could break too, since they could put school governance devolution and all the other public payroll budget-hawkery in some campaign ads, and conversely would appear to be pursuing a vendetta if they kept pushing on teachers alone (which doesn't look so good to centrists and independents).

Basically, the Democrats could say "We defended the unions that matter most, and our innovative education plan protected teachers and kids," and the Republicans could say "We ended greedy public employee unions and our innovative education plan took teachers off the public payroll and took big government out of the picture." Cue the bipartisan cosponsors, hand shakes, photo ops, and a whole lot of back-room horse trading.

I'm enamored of this idea as a centrist because it might create enough momentum to end the crisis, and as a technocrat because it would create separate 'levers' for school funding and teacher salaries, which are oft-conflated.

I could be wrong. What do you think?