I attended a forum tonight at St. Norbert College titled “The Budget Standoff in Madison: A Panel Discussion”. It was organized by Robert Pyne, Director of the Peace and Justice Center at St. Norbert. Here’s the description from the event on Facebook:
Concerned about what is happening at our state capitol? Confused? Join Matthew Stollak, Fr. Brendan McKeough, Dan Robinson and Christopher Meidl as we discuss collective bargaining, political realities, and the future of unions in America.
I showed up a bit late due to other commitments. The event started at 7:00 and ran until about 8:50. I arrived at about 7:40, missing the early parts of the discussion. But I don’t think I missed most of the main discussion points.
I was disappointed about a couple of things. First, it became obvious very quickly that the panelists were like-minded on this issue. They had a few differences, but they all seemed to favor the financial concessions of Gov. Walker’s proposal, saying that union members should indeed contribute more to their health insurance and retirement plans. They also favored removing the collective bargaining issue from the proposal for various reasons. So, by and large, that’s the direction the discussion took, including most of the comments from the audience in attendance.
I would like to have had two more viewpoints on the panel. First, it would have been more balanced to have someone argue the merits of Gov. Walker’s proposal as it stands. What are the good reasons to change collective bargaining? Second, I would like to have heard someone argue the merits of scrapping the entire plan. That voice was not heard.
Now, I should make it clear that this event was organized very quickly, with barely a day’s notice to some panelists. I’m not suggesting that Bob Pyne intentionally assembled the panel to have this makeup. He did it quickly, reaching out to a few people whom he thought would not only contribute well to the conversation, but would also be available to do it. I think he did a great job putting this together. I’m just saying that given more time, a more diverse panel would have made for a more thorough discussion.
In response to a question posed by a student, Dan Robinson said that he has not heard anyone who is in favor of doing nothing about the budget. But I sure have. I’ve watched many news reports and seen many protesters in Madison interviewed. There are thousands of union members, mostly teachers, who don’t want any part of this plan. They don’t want to contribute more to their health insurance and retirement, and they want nothing to do with changing their collective bargaining. While this position was not on the panel, it is definitely represented in the protesters.
Matthew Stollak (the professor who gets to work before me and takes my favorite parking spot every day) made some great points about how much of what the unions have fought for over the years is now provided by legislation, but that unions are still needed.
Christopher Meidl talked about the potential for teachers to lose their voice. I’ve heard this a lot and I just don’t understand it. I don’t agree with the fact that an employee has no voice unless he or she is a union member or unless he or she can collectively bargain.
An audience member referred to the increased health insurance and retirement contributions as taking money out of the pockets of teachers, and therefore the economy will suffer because that money will not be spent in the community. She’s right. It does indeed take money out of the pockets of union members. That’s the point. But this argument is without merit from a financial standpoint; the need to balance our state budget far outweighs our need to keep money in the pockets of union members. A balanced budget carries with it significant economic benefits for all Wisconsin taxpayers.
There was also discussion about why some unions are exempt from the plan. Dan Robinson found it suspect that most of the five exempt unions were also contributors to Gov. Walker’s campaign last fall. Gov. Walker has already explained why some unions are exempt. Jason Mugnaini, president of St. Norbert College Republicans, explained that unions like police and firefighters provide essential services and cannot be allowed to strike. Agree or not, those are the reasons. I must also say that if opposing state senators feel that the plan is not fair because it doesn’t apply to all unions, they certainly have not proposed such a change.
During one of the times that I spoke, I talked about how unions and collective bargaining are not necessary to maintain a quality education system. Sarah Griffiths raised the issue of the student/teacher ratio being part of collective bargaining, along with other similar conditions. Some teachers have said that their classroom size will increase to over 40. I’ve heard other teachers say that our kids will suffer if teachers can’t collectively bargain. This is just not true.
As a school district taxpayer and a parent, I am not going to allow the conditions in our schools to deteriorate just because of a union issue. In other words, if a teacher needs something in order to do their job better, they should go to their principal, not the union. If a teacher needs more supplies or better technology or a different schedule or an additional day off or a more creative curriculum, they should go to their administrators and have the issue raised with the school board and community if necessary. These are local issues. They should not collectively bargain for these kinds of things.
We’re all on the same team here. Parents, taxpayers, school board, teachers, principals. We all want the best education for our kids. Let’s just work together to create that. This certainly doesn’t mean we can afford everything. Maybe we agree that we need something but that we just can’t afford right now. Fine. But let’s just work together to make this happen, and not require that our teachers collectively bargain for their needs.
Now, I also understand that some school districts may not have everyone on the “same team”. That’s a shame, but when that happens, state legislation should be enough to resolve the critical issues.
Considering this whole state budget debate, information that we are getting is fragmented and incomplete. Gov. Walker has certainly had his opportunities to speak to us on TV, but there’s no one from the opposition doing that. Senate Democrats are in Illinois, so they can’t talk to us, and it’s difficult to know what’s true and what’s not. When I hear someone say something that I know isn’t true, I don’t know if it’s just a partisan spin or ignorance. We would all be better served if we had leadership voices on all sides of the issue.
Overall, the discussion tonight was respectful and civil. My criticisms notwithstanding, I did enjoy the forum and thought that my time was well spent. I hope we do it more.
There were many more specific issues discussed, but these are the few that stick out in my mind. I hope I didn’t mischaracterize anyone’s statements or opinions. I certainly welcome your comments, corrections and further discussion here, especially if you were also at the forum.