They were protesting legislation that would restrict the scope of collective bargaining power, while at the same time requiring public-sector workers to pay more for their pensions and health care. Last week, reportedly 40% of Madison, Wisconsin, schoolteachers called in sick (ostensibly they were in attendance at the state capital, and by appearances bringing some of the student body with them). The protestors (at least the ones on camera) drew comparisons to their actions with those taken recently by those in Egypt protesting for freedom and a democratic system of government.
But to my eyes, it looked more like Greece.
Don’t get me wrong. The Wisconsin protests were boisterous but appeared to be peaceful, and I’ve heard no reports of the kind of violence and arson that accompanied the protests in Greece a year ago (see IMHO: Grecian Formula).
But in Wisconsin, as in Greece, a big issue is pensions and benefits1; more specifically, that certain promises had been made to workers by a government that said it was no longer able to meet those obligations, certainly not on the original terms.
During the Greek protests, I was hard-pressed to find anyone sympathetic to their cause. Most had read with some incredulity coverage of the sanctioned state retirement age (61, though reports said many retired as early as 53), and considering the enormous financial straits of that nation, most seemed to think the protestors needed to be reintroduced to reality. Of course, I wasn’t talking to any Greek nationals about this—just associates in this country and others who are living with (and within) a completely different set of economic and retirement expectations.
Which brings us back to Wisconsin—or New Jersey, or California, or Ohio, or perhaps even your town. Doubtless some of those protesting workers are overpaid and underworked, as in any workplace, but surely most are undertaking to do an honest day’s work for a fair amount of pay and benefits. These people are, as President Obama said recently, our friends and neighbors. Heck, in my case, they are also family members. And I can promise you that the teachers and/or police officers in my family are NOT overpaid.
On the other hand, I have plenty of friends and family in the private sector who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and had to figure out a way to make ends meet without the protection of tenure, or the safety net of a pension or retiree medical coverage. They weren’t overpaid before they lost that job, and they surely weren’t afterwards. Many who still have jobs have had to absorb pay and/or benefit cuts (or had those cut into by higher prices and co-pays). They have had their pensions frozen, if they ever had one at all, and not a few saw their 401(k) match suspended over the past couple of years. Many haven’t seen a “regular” cost-of-living increase capable of keeping up with the increases in the cost of living in a very long time.
They are, quite simply, living with (and within) what appear to be a completely different set of economic and retirement expectations than those now in, and descending upon, the Wisconsin capital.
And, as a result, I can’t help but wonder if they’ll be sympathetic.
See also “IMHO: Promises Premises”
1 Some might argue that the real issue in Wisconsin is proposed changes in collective bargaining rights rather than pensions, but at issue, among other things, is the right to collectively bargain for wages, pensions, and benefits, so….