CHEESEHEADS OF THE WORLD, UNITE: After watching events transpire the past 10 days in my former hometown — Madison, Wisconsin — all I can say, is “Go ahead, Lanny, make my day.” I am referring, of course, to Santa Barbara’s minister-without-portfolio and wannabe union buster, Lanny Ebenstein. I’m also referring to the daily protests taking place inside and outside Madison’s historic state capitol building over an in-your-face union-busting bill crammed through by Republican Governor Scott Walker. Walker is using the pretext of the state’s budget woes not just to sever the jugular of the Democratic Party power base — the unions — but its gonads, as well. Even though Wisconsin’s public workers have agreed to major concessions in response to Wisconsin’s projected shortfall, Walker is pushing a bill to drastically curtail the bargaining rights of some public employee unions. That public employee unions are major donors to the Democratic Party is hardly coincidental. In fact, it’s the whole point. If Walker was genuinely motivated by budgetary concerns, he would never have exempted police and firefighter unions from his proposed bill. Of all public employees, cops and firefighters tend to be the best paid and cost the taxpayers the most. That Walker would be so selective should not be surprising; law enforcement unions across the state endorsed him.
It’s worth noting that unions representing Wisconsin cops and firefighters have come out against Walker’s so-called “reform” and have joined Mad-Town’s teeming masses that have camped out in front of the state capitol the past 10 days, braving subzero temperatures and the stiff winds blowing off Madison’s twin lakes. Admittedly, people in Wisconsin are crazy. During the last NFL strike, Green Bay Packer fans still loyally thronged to their stadium every single Sunday come rain, shine, or freezing cold; that’s because in Wisconsin, stadium tailgate parties are covered under the same Commandment about keeping holy the Sabbath. In that context, games are wonderful, but hardly essential. It is worth mentioning that many current and former Packers — most notably cornerback Charles Woodson, whose win-one-for-the-Gipper halftime speech helped propel America’s only municipally owned major sports franchise on to Super Bowl victory this year — have come out in support of the protestors. In Wisconsin, if the Packers are against you, you are clearly on the wrong side of history. Many comparisons have been made likening the historic upheaval now taking place in Egypt — where a U.S.-backed dictator was deposed after 30 years of rule by a largely nonviolent revolution — with what’s happening in Wisconsin. Given the relative risks involved, I think that’s really inappropriate. The Egyptian protestors have no idea what minus 40 degrees feels like. Still, it was a nice gesture for some of them to spring for pizza to keep their Wisconsin comrades warm and well-fed.
Back in Santa Barbara, Lanny Ebenstein is hoping to qualify a ballot initiative for the 2012 statewide elections that would go much further than Walker dared to tread. Walker took pains to maintain at least a fig leaf of an illusion that he wasn’t busting public employee unions outright. Under his proposal, unions might not be able to do much, but they could still exist. Ebenstein is shopping around an idea that would effectively decertify all public employee unions in the state. They couldn’t bargain anything. Personally, I’m tempted to dismiss the whole thing as an elaborate fantasy conjured by Ebenstein to create a political parade that he can march in front of. But maybe not. While Lanny proved singularly ineffective as one of two campaign managers for Sheriff Bill Brown’s proposed jail tax last November, the fact is that nothing and no one could have saved Brown’s bacon on that. Lanny might not be the second coming of sliced bread that he says he is, but he has definitely had impact. Many moons ago, he helped stop a suicidally short-sighted school board from closing Dos Pueblos High School. A few years back, he helped kill a bond measure that would have paid for a new police station. Since then, the need for a new station has only grown greater and the costs a whole lot higher.
I know it’s all the rage to bash public employees these days. And there is cause. It’s hard not to feel bitterness when some people who make $150,000 a year are able to retire at age 50 and then collect 80 percent of their annual salary. (Indirectly, these deals are clearly the fault of the nation’s utility companies that conspired 10 years ago to create an artificial energy shortage in California, which led to the recall of Governor Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before Davis went, he struck all kinds of desperate extravagant deals with the politically powerful prison guards union, in hopes of finding a protector. It didn’t work, but that deal became the template for what all law enforcement unions have since demanded and largely achieved.)
Clearly, changes need to be made. But envy is a dangerous emotion and should never be assigned the role of “due north” on anybody’s political compass. Public employees — not even the fattest, laziest, and most grossly overpaid — did not cause the financial meltdown. (Most studies suggest public employees make slightly less than their counterparts in the private sector — when educational background is factored in — but most do somewhat better than their private counterparts when it comes to benefits and pensions. And the “average” pension hovers around a more modest $20,000 a year.) They did not make the stock market crash. They did not get obscenely rich issuing billions of dollars in bad loans to people they absolutely and positively knew could never pay them back. Nor did they get bailed out for crimes that should have put them behind bars because they were deemed “too big to fail.” They are not the reason California’s unemployment is at 12 percent. And they aren’t the reason California is now struggling with a $25-billion budget deficit. If you loved the banking crisis — and the attendant mass foreclosures that have destroyed California’s construction industry — then you should support Lanny’s proposed ballot initiative. In the meantime, I say, “Go Cheeseheads!” and “On Wisconsin!” At the end of the day, maybe some Egyptians will buy us all some pizza.