24 February 2011
The Wisconsin Question
We're being told this week that public employees are a privileged lot. Because of their alleged symbiotic relationship with government in general and the Democratic party in particular, they can get away with demands for wages and benefits that would be rejected out of hand anywhere in the private sector. While the private sector must be ever mindful of the bottom line, politicians too often borrow money to make life more comfortable for those workers who pay them back, in many cases, with votes. There may be some objective truth to these propositions, but beneath them are some less pleasant premises. There's an implicit assumption in the statements of Republican governors, radio talkers, and reactionary rabble, that public employees should have less leeway to negotiate for optimum working conditions than their private-sector counterparts, that they have less right to demand their due when their boss is "We the People." Of course, "We the People" will still want the best quality service, if we want the service at all, but we seem to believe that we should unilaterally determine what the services are worth, and that our will on the matter, this being a democracy, should be absolute. It thus appears monstrous that public employees should defy the will of the people and the majority of their elected representatives, and assert for themselves what their fair compensation should be. But here, at least, unlike when a sports team raises ticket prices to pay for the latest superstar acquisition, we think we can hold public employees to account. We can root for governors to lay them off. We can discreetly agree when some twit tweets that they should be shot. We can accuse the teachers of betraying our children by taking a sick day to demonstrate at the state capital when we would rather have our kids taught by the low-bid and most likely least qualified contractors. With that attitude prevalent, no wonder public employees are among the most thoroughly unionized in the country today; they have the suckiest bosses. But since this is a democracy, "We the People" must rule. So what do we really want? Do we want the cheapest public servants we can hope to keep? Or do we want our public servants to be slaves?