Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Feb 22, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly discussion. The world keeps changing -- I just finished watching part of Gaddafi's delusional speech, appropriately delivered from what I believe were the ruins of one of his palaces. The question is how many more Libyans he will murder in his desperate attempt to stay in power. Closer to home, today's column is about the standoff in Wisconsin, which I see as not an attempt to balance the budget but rather an exercise in union-busting. The unions have already agreed to the givebacks that Gov. Scott Walker demands. This is about politics, not fiscal responsibility, and I hope the Democrats and the unions hang tough. Let's get started.

You conclude that Wisconsin is not about money, but about politics. Well, if this whole thing is political, why not let the political process function? People voted for a Republican governor and a majority-Republican legislature. Just like Obama and his majorities were entitled to pass Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, Scott Walker and his legislature ought to be able to pass their agenda. Doesn't the notion that "elections have consequences" work in both directions?

True. And the Democratic legislators and thousands of protesters who are trying to stop this legislation are exercising their legal right to dissent. That works in both directions, too.

If Republicans wildest dreams come true, if measures like this succeed not only in Wisconsin but elsewhere, what does that really mean? Will it make Democrats more beholden to large corporate interests for campaign contributions or could this hypothetical catastrophe be a turning point for campaign finance reform, public contributions, and opinions against the Republican Party married now and forever to the idea that it is the party of big business? In short, could this be a blessing in disguise?

If it's a blessing, it's very well disguised indeed. I've given up on hoping for true campaign finance reform, and there's nothing new about the GOP being associated in the public mind with big business. This does strengthen the hand of corporate interests -- as if that hand needed strengthening.

If unionized public employees get better pay than non-union, private company workers, doesn't that suggest the private company workers should unionize to get better wages and benefits, rather than be angry at public employees for using their power to protect middle class pay rates for themselves?

The thing is that public employees don't get better pay. They do have better benefits -- which is the basic tradeoff that pubic employment has always offered. You get job security, good benefits and a good pension, but you don't get the kind of pay raises and bonuses that you might get in the private sector.

Last year, David Brooks of the New York Times - with appropriate credit to Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal - pointed out that state and local governments are so indebted to their workers in pension and other obligations that they have little money for anything else. He gave some examples: California state police often retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their salary. Corrections officers in that state earn $70,000 in base salary. New York City, the home office of featherbedding, supports 10,000 cops who retired before the age of 50.

I agree that these benefits are sweet. But how did the unions get them? Through negotiation. It's ridiculous to blame the unions for agreeing to take what elected officials agreed to give them. Specifically, the examples you cite all involve law enforcement officers. State and local governments have traditionally allowed police and other uniformed officers to retire earlier than, say, building inspectors. For obvious reasons.

Taxpayer dollars are used to pay the salaries of government employees, who in turn use this money to pay union dues to the public sector unions. The unions then donate some of these dues to the Democratic Party to help in their reelection campaigns. Isn't this all just a scam to use taxpayer dollars to fund the Democratic party? Shouldn't this be illegal?

In other words, you don't believe that public employees should be allowed to join unions. (Because the Supreme Court isn't going to keep union money out of politics.) I do believe that public workers should be allowed to unionize. Republicans who are not anti-union get campaign contributions, too.

Can you explain the vitriol of the right wing extremists toward organized labor? They speak of unions as if they were the devil incarnate. My father, an unreconstructed Nixon republican, was proud of his 50-year union card. He knew it helped him move into the middle class, to raise our family, to achieve the American dream. None of that would have been possible with bosses and corporations calling all the shots. So what has changed from our parents' generation to ours?

Richard Nixon would be considered a "California liberal" by today's Republican Party. After all, he did establish the Environmental Protection Agency, which Newt Gingrich now wants to abolish. What happened is that the GOP has gone so far to the right that it now occupies what used to be considered fringe territory.

Gene, I most always agree with your opinion and certainly appreciater your prespective on issues. I agree that the issue is not really money at this point. I don't think however that this is "union busting". I think what is being sought is union accountability. I do not think that a condition of employment should be the paying of union dues if the person does not wish to be in the union. As I understand the proposed legislation employees could vote annualy to decide if they want a union to represent them. What is wrong with that? I have an education degree but never taught (except part time at the university level) because I did not want to join the Michigan Educational Association.

What can I say? I believe in unions. They were instrumental in building the American middle class. During my long career here at The Post, whenever I was eligible to be a member of the Newspaper Guild, I happily signed up and paid my dues. I saw it as an investment in my future and my colleagues' future.

Gene, the problem in Wisconson and elsewhere is the public service unions negotiated contracts with people the did a lot to elect. Do you want to defend what looks like and probably is incest?

So, let's see, what if Lockheed Martin and its executives give money to politicians who are then elected to Congress or the White House. Should Lockheed Martin then be disqualified from bidding for government contracts? Why is it a problem when teachers and firefighters participate in the political process, but not when corporate titans and investors do the same?

So John Boehner and his cronies took every opportunity to label the President a "job killer" and his legislative priorities (i.e. health care, stimulus money) "job killing legislation". Yet what the Republicans propose with respect to government cuts really are literally "job killing"! And yet no one seems to ask them to reconcile this hypocrisy.

I, too, find this amazing. It's as if a public-sector job isn't really a job. "So be it," Speaker Boehner said, when talking about the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who would become unemployed if the House budget plan went through. Doesn't anyone realize that public-sector workers buy cars, just like private-sector workers? That they shop at the local mall? That they take vacations? In short, that they fuel the economy just like other workers do?

Help me understand two issues: 1) Unions are typically accused, by employers and the right wing, of taking dues and not returning results. Here we see the unions accused of doing too well by their membership. Which is it? 2) The right will accuse the unions of sending out of state demonstrators to foreingn soil, ie Wisconsin. Today's NYTimes discloses that Omaha based Koch brothers are bankrolling millions to the Wisconsin politicians and their supporters who are seeking to strip the unions of their collective bargaining role. How is this a level playing field? reconciled?

There you go again, introducing logic. Good luck with that.

Your earlier questioner blames "union" for generous pensions to police. But there's a good public policy reason to get older cops off the force and make room for younger (i.e. healthier, more athletic, better able to chase down a fleeing suspect) officers. That's why the 90% pensions for retiring after age 50 apply to police and fire departments, but not to teachers and civil servants. At the federal level, the same reasoning applies to the armed services, which is why you can retire after 30 years service. Police and firefighters' unions aren't better than other public workers' unions. It's for a reason.

Thanks for spelling this out.

You've stated that the Wisconsin flap is about politics, not money. Well, the ugly politics go both ways. Even though Gov. Walker is trying to get rid of public unions, the Democrats have resorted to fleeing and denying the legislature a quorum, preventing any action from being taken. Isn't this exactly the type of obstructionism that Republicans have been employing since Obama took office and, if so, is it hypocritical on the Dems' part?

If so, it's also hypocritical on the Republicans' part for complaining.

People think that vaccinating their kids isn't important because they didn't live through the time when their classmates died from tetanus or polio. People hate unions because they don't remember when people were killed or injured on the job without compensation to the family. I heard horror stories about my grandfather's job in the coal mines - the unions forced the owners to be human.

You're absolutely right. Unions are, in a sense, victims of their own success. We forget what things were like before workers were able to unionize.

I disagree with that statement, Eugene. Someone once did a study of how much associates in a big law firm earn, per hour. I'll bet they make less than many public employees. And they don't get a pension, either. You really need to look at how many hours a person spends on the job to compare salaries.

Well, yes, but those associates are all hoping to make partner and then cash in. But I should have elaborated on my earlier assertion. I've seen lots of different calculations of public-sector vs. private-sector compensation. My reading of the preponderance of the evidence is that public-sector workers get less in salary but more in benefits and pensions. 

Can you think of any other group of "professionals," other than teachers, that is unionized? Professionals are supposed to have associations, and they are supposed to police themselves. I'm a lifelong Democrat, but after 5 years with kids in the District of Columbia public schools, I'm not a fan of teachers' unions.

Journalists and actors, off the top of my head. The teaching profession isn't structured like law or medicine.

What is going on in Wisconsin is beyond belief - My feeling is that the governor should just fire all those people who are not at work - their actions are affecting the education of our young people and others - there are a lot of unemployed people looking for work out there. Our states and this country as a matter of act is in terrible financial shape and we should all do our part to correct the situation - but what i am hearing from union workers in Wisconsin is yest our state is in financial straits, but let someone else take the hits not us - I say this is the reason why unions have such a bad reputation - they are not willing to bend for anyone if it in anyway affects them - there fore I again say - either they go back to work and do their job or the governor should fire all of them

Um, but they agreed to take the hit. All of it. They have accepted the governor's financial terms. They have met his demands. The only thing they won't agree to is losing the right to bargain on behalf of their members. Why is this even controversial? Why shouldn't they have the right to negotiate? After all, they have no power to take anything that officials don't give them in negotiations.

You frequently say that the unions won the employee benefits through negotiation. But from who will the fund come? Will they come out of the CEO's golden parachute? Will they come out of the shareholders' annual divident? Will they come from customers who experience a price increase? The answer to all these questions is "no." The funds will come from taxpayers to state and local governments. When the taxpayers refuse to pay, the government will seize their asssets, like their paychecks, their homes, and their automobiles. And the people from whom government will seize these assets often earn less than government employees and have no benefits at all. There are vast differences between public and private unions, and people should not confuse them. Any win for a public employee union will take money directly from people who work and pay taxes. And Obama supports a continuation of the tax cut for the rich, so we know which taxpayers are going to fund the lavish benefits for public employees.

Well, maybe you'd prefer to live in a state or city where there was no government. If there is a government, there will be government workers. If there are government workers, they will be compensated with salary and benefits. These funds will come from tax revenues. If you want all-volunteer policing, road maintenance, education, etc., be my guest. Not where I live, though.

So to be clear: in your mind, the unions are right and the Governor is wrong. Is there any room in Mr. Robinson's neighborhood for the possibility that both sides might be comprised of generally decent people who both have an element of truth? We aren't going to be able to make any of the tough choices we need to when partisan pundits reflexively retreat into false "them wrong-us right" dichotomies.

But I do acknowledge that tough choices have to be made -- and that public employees, like workers in so many other sectors, have to adjust to new economic realities. The only thing I object to is the attempt to take away the union's right to collective bargaining, which is not about balancing the budget -- the unions agree to the governor's demands -- but about busting the union. I don't like that.

Since you watched it as well, could I get a sanity check from you? Yes, he's crazy, but the interpreter literally didn't make any sense. Sentences weren't complete, thoughts weren't coherent. Was it me? Was it a bad interpreter? Thanks!

I think the interpreters did as well as they could. "Rambling" does not come close to describing Gaddafi's speech, near as I can tell. But it was also full of menace, and it seems clear that he's willing to commit murder on an epic scale in an attempt to cling to power. 

Nurses have a union. So do professional athletes. And engineers. Pro athletes need it because most of them aren't making millions, but they are risking future health for their short careers; nurses and engineers generally have bachelor's degrees at least, and are highly skilled.

Thanks for expanding the list.

You do your readers no service with hyperbolic assertions about the situation. Please be honest about what it on the table Elimination of the "right to negotiate" is not. Please. The union can still bargain on matters other than benefits and they can bargain for that the way the rest of us do.

No. They would not be able to bargain for pensions or benefits. They would be able to bargain for salaries, but not "the way the rest of us do" because any possible salary rise would be limited by the cost of living. So it's not hyperbole. The unions' ability to bargain meaningfully on behalf of their  members would be gone.


And with that, folks, I'm gone too -- my time is up for today. Thanks for participating, and I'll see you again next week.

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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