Like most educators, I’ve watched with interest the unfolding political drama in Wisconsin regarding possible statutory changes that would impact the ability of public employees to collectively bargain. As if watching any state legislature on it’s own isn’t enough drama, the spectacle of 30,000 (or more) citizens massed on the Madison capital grounds in protest of Republican Governor Walker’s proposal is classic unstoppable force meeting immovable object. This is a metaphorical train wreck getting ready to happen from which no one can stand to look away.

I commend Governor Walker for taking on the real and the tough issues of getting the state budget in order. State governments across the country teeter on the edge of bankruptcy while our national debt piles higher and higher. This recession was brought on by unscrupulous bank practices and private citizens who leveraged too much of their lives on debt and lived paycheck to paycheck before the system of borrow and spend finally imploded on itself.

Today, our government faces a similar reckoning. Public services and government organizations must reshape to be more efficient and smaller for the future. Like it or not, this is a reality we must confront.

With that said, it is one thing to take the tough and direct steps necessary to get government spending in line. It is another to disenfranchise workers from that discussion through statute. For every inane and overly complicated bureaucratic process, undeserved job protection, or lock-step spending increase unions have put in place, there was also representation from management who agreed to the deal. We are all culpable for the creation of this grand mess.

Unions are about one purpose: re-balancing power from those with formal authority to those without. One sure-fire way to whip up support and create a need for stronger unions is to try and disenfranchise workers. If you really want to get rid of unions, start with eliminating the causes for why they exist (i.e. abuses of formal power).

On the other side of this argument are the union protesters and the Wisconsin Democratic legislators. While I would never disparage or seek to limit anyone’s right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate (and to the credit of those involved so far, these demonstrations remain relatively civil and peaceful to this point), choices have been made in response to the Governor’s actions that are undemocratic and that aren’t in the best interest of kids.

Select Democratic legislators chose to flee the state in an attempt to hijack the democratic process. This is an irresponsible and undemocratic act. These legislators should honor their state constitution, uphold the oaths they took, and do their jobs. Fleeing the state to avoid having the tough conversation and avoid the will of people (the Republican majority was rightfully elected) is an irresponsible neglect of their duty in our democracy.

On the teachers’ union side, they decided to have a “sick out,” where, all at once, teachers use the sick days provided to them under their master agreements to force schools to close. This practice reinforces everything the general public thinks is wrong with unions. To advance a political end centered (mainly) on pay and benefits, this act deprived students of instructional opportunities that we can never get back. There is nothing about a “sick out” that puts kids first.

Going forward, both sides of this fight have to confront the realities of the situation. Unions are not going away anytime soon and attempts to disenfranchise them will only make them that much stronger and reinforce their reason to exist. Both the short and long term budget struggles we face as a nation are not going away either, and they won’t be solved by industrial-age and bare-knuckle union tactics and political stunts that do nothing to confront the underlying reality that the money is simply no longer there.

Every generation of leaders before us faced their challenges and struggles. Getting our government spending on a sustainable path and shedding unworkable industrial age approaches may well be the most significant and vexing challenges our generation of leaders will confront.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA