The best show in town has been playing at the Capitol this week: tens of thousands of union members and their supporters engaged in a massive exercise in groupthink and pulling mightily for the mythic working man (and woman).
In seeking to end most collective bargaining rights for most public workers, Gov. Scott Walker is Wisconsin's version of Hosni Mubarak, declared some of the protesters' signs. A bit of passionate hyperbole, I know, but evidence that government workers may well be a coddled bunch to suggest their situation is somehow comparable to living under emergency law for 30 years.
Or the ones accusing Walker of depriving people of their "rights"; replace a few of the signs' other words and you might as well be having a Tea Party rally.
He's harming "working families," too, I notice, as if forcing unionized government employees to pay some modest amount toward their pensions and health care will send them into bankruptcy and their homes into foreclosure — you know, like what's happened to all those Americans who don't have jobs, much less generous pension and health care benefits.
In scrolling through the Madison School District's teacher salary schedule, I see amounts ranging from about $34,000 to about $91,000 — not CEO-level, but not bad considering the benefits and the relief of being exempt from anything like a reasonable employee evaluation system. Similarly, the pay for unionized state workers ranges from about $23,000 to into the six figures. Again, nothing special, but not exactly McDonald's either.
To be sure, "Walker has been against collective bargaining his entire career," as Dennis Dresang, UW-Madison political science professor emeritus, puts it. And in the present case, the governor's ideology dovetails nicely with his stated reason for killing it: helping to close a $3.6 billion projected budget gap.
Dresang said it would have been wiser for Walker to negotiate, as there are "so many different ways to attack compensation costs"; it's just that he wants to do it his way.
And from a political perspective, why wouldn't he?
There were two possible scripts for a newly elected Republican governor with a newly Republican statehouse:
• Negotiate with the unions and endure an almost certain drawn-out process that leaves him no closer to his goal than when he started and, when he finally gives up, opens him to union attacks of refusing to bargain. Plus, the likelihood that the entire process will be taken over by politics as Republican lawmakers in districts with lots of public workers start to think twice about ticking them off too close to an election.
• Take advantage of the lingering high from November's big GOP wins and do it by fiat.
It's pretty clear now which script Walker chose to follow. And the political theater it's become a part of is, like any other, pretty much equal parts drama and fiction at this point.
But like all good art, it sure sheds light on the human condition.
Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or email@example.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.