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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wisconsin Union Battle Resonates in S.F.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 22, 2011 at 2:55 PM

click to enlarge Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

It was only a matter of time before San Francisco politicians and activists began weighing in on the pitched battle over union power in Wisconsin. Even more so here than in most states and cities, labor is an essential factor in all political equations. Now, sure enough, unions and their allies are trying to portray events in Wisconsin as the harbinger of an anti-labor movement that could eventually reach the Bay Area.

State Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, put out a statement today asserting that "what is happening in Wisconsin and to a degree here in California, is a complete disrespect to those who educate our kids, clean our buildings, care for our sick, and build our communities." The San Francisco Labor Council, meanwhile, is recruiting attendees for a candlelight vigil to be held in Sacramento tonight to "show solidarity" with Wisconsin union workers.

Adam Keigwin, spokesman for Yee, tells us that the senator's remarks are laced with concerns over efforts in Sacramento to cut back on social services (which he says are part of the "safety net" for public workers) as well as to San Francisco's Proposition B, the 2010 failed initiative that would have forced workers to contribute more to their own pensions and healthcare costs. The measure was defeated in November by a 16-point margin.

At first blush, the situations in San Francisco and Wisconsin seem to have little in common, other than the obvious financial drain on each government body by public employee wages and benefits. In Wisconsin, a Republican administration is confronting the labor powers-that-be with sweeping, and perhaps excessive, curbs on union influence. In San Francisco, Public Defender Jeff Adachi's Prop. B proposed comparably modest reforms that were vehemently opposed by union leaders and local legislators.

click to enlarge Public Defender Jeff Adachi
  • Public Defender Jeff Adachi
But there is a common thread, and it is this: A democratic (small "d") push toward changing the way public-employee unions do business. In San Francisco, Adachi wisely took his plan for pension reform directly to the voters, knowing that other politicians would not support the initiative. One can hardly say that Prop. B was successful, but it fared better with the general public than with the pols; not a single elected leader endorsed the proposal.

Likewise, Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, is doing the job he was elected to do last fall. As New York Times columnist David Brooks puts it in a column published yesterday:

Walker's critics are amusingly Orwellian. They liken the crowd in Madison to the ones in Tunisia and claim to be fighting for democracy. Whatever you might say about Walker, he and the Republican majorities in Wisconsin were elected, and they are doing exactly what they told voters they would do.
Politically implausible reform campaigns on topics such as public-employee compensation and union clout will most likely come from the ground up -- beginning with voters who have seen their own wages and benefits decrease or stagnate because of economic forces that have not similarly affected their public-sector brethren.

In Wisconsin, that's what's happening. And it's why labor and labor's allies, even in places as far away as San Francisco, are getting worried.

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Peter Jamison

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