Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Act 10

Fan Mail of the Day

From today’s inbox, a comment by someone at Ohio State University:

Saw your article “It’s Working in Walker’s Wisconsin”. History does seem to repeat itself and go in cycles. I guess the public will just have to relearn why their grandparent’s generation fought the robber barons and those extremely exploitative jobs. I wish someone would do an analysis on the types of jobs Walker is bringing in. I can tell, Mr. Schneider would never want to work that type of job. Corporate sluts like Walker and yourself will never know what it’s like to work and be stuck in a labor intensive job, though karma would tell us it’s exactly what you deserve.

You, sir, are no friend of mine, you hate your common brother enough to send him to the sweatshops. All for selling out to money from Walker or the Koch bros. The suffering you contribute to will hopefully be put on your shoulders by St. Peter.

I’m only offended because I am more of a standard slut, not the corporate variety.


The 2011 Year in Review

My Year in Review column for the Isthmus is up.  It discusses, naturally, the goings-on in Wisconsin politics over the past year.  Here’s a snippet:

It was a year that granted the definition of the word “democracy” a previously unimaginable elasticity. While bullhorns around the Capitol blared “this is what democracy looks like,” 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to prevent democracy from occurring. Later, a single Dane County judge would overturn Walker’s law, which irony-deficient Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca called “a huge win for democracy in Wisconsin.” The law would later be reinstated by an incredulous state Supreme Court.

It was these same “democracy enthusiasts” who decided to use Wisconsin’s 85-year-old recall law to cast a number of democratically elected Republicans from office. Since the law was passed in 1926, only two state elected officials had been recalled from office; in 2011, nine state senators faced that fate, demonstrating that this is what democracy has never looked like. Despite over $40 million being spent on the senate recalls, Republicans won four of the six contested seats and retained control of the state senate by a one-vote margin.

In some districts, Republicans won by more comfortable margins than they ever had before. Of the two GOP senators who lost, one was in a district Barack Obama carried by 18 percentage points. The other was embroiled in a personal scandal involving a 25-year-old mistress. Thus, after the rancorous recall process, the enduring lesson was: It\’s probably a bad idea to cheat on your wife.

It was a year where Madison teachers showed parents how much they valued their kids by walking out on them for a four-day sick-out. Some teachers even brought their pupils down to the Capitol to help them protest. When a group of Madison East high school students were asked why they were marching on the statehouse during a school day, one young man said he was “trying to stop whatever this dude is doing.”

Read the whole thing here.

Tough Noogies: What’s the big deal that Scott Walker didn’t campaign on curbing union power?

On the day before Gov. Scott Walker introduced his plan to restrict public-sector collective bargaining, he met with Democratic legislative leaders to brief them on the details. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca expressed disbelief, complaining to Walker that he hadn’t mentioned the plan at all during the gubernatorial campaign.

This meme has become the primary obloquy hurled at Walker during the collective-bargaining firestorm: Walker is somehow a liar for not mentioning his plan while campaigning for governor in fall 2010. Walker’s proposal “went far beyond what anybody thought he would do,” union leader Richard Abelson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in February. “He didn’t talk about it during the campaign. If he had said that, some people who supported him would have had some second thoughts,” said Abelson, head of District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Yet the “we was duped” talking point is as old as democracy itself. Ancient Greeks were probably overheard saying things like, “None of Cleisthenes’ YouTube videos mentioned that he was going to stop me from trading my wife for three goats.”

In 1960, Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller ripped his primary opponent, Richard Nixon, for not being forthcoming with voters about his plans. “I find it unreasonable — in these times — that the leading Republican candidate for the presidential nomination has firmly insisted upon making known his program and his policies, not before, but only after nomination by his party,” Rockefeller said.

He lost.

The Walker complainers have a more finely honed selective memory than people who remember the Titanic as a fine dining experience. Do they recall Walker’s predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle, campaigning on cutting the University of Wisconsin budget by $250 million and raising tuition 35% in two years to cover it? Was candidate Doyle in 2002 running around the state promising to raid the transportation fund and backfill it with debt? Of course not — but upon taking office, he thought he had to do these things to balance the budget.

In fact, the archetype of the lying politician is as ingrained in American politics as the sight of candidates kissing babies. Doyle promised never to raise taxes — yet he raised them by billions during his tenure. Candidate Barack Obama pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility — yet under President Obama, there it remains, providing the government with the intelligence it needed to catch Osama bin Laden.

And yet Walker isn’t being excoriated for going back on a promise; he’s being criticized simply for something he didn’t say. (Incidentally, plenty of unions were telling their members during the campaign that Walker was going to roll back their ability to bargain.) As if campaigns are measured, cautious affairs, where candidates put forth their plans and voters carefully measure each morsel of fiscal policy contained therein.

In reality, the Walker campaign was fighting off claims that he wanted to kill women by denying them mammograms.

Finally, would Walker really have not been elected had he proposed to limit union bargaining during the campaign? Face it, he would have won.

In a year where Republicans wiped Democrats off the face of the political map, winning control of the state Senate, the Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives and defeating liberal icon Senator Russ Feingold, do people actually believe Walker would have lost? Does someone want to call Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and ask him what he thinks?”

The Wisconsin Public Union Protest Dictionary

dictionaryAs is the case with any extended crisis, the Wisconsin stalemate has begun to create its own vernacular. Previously familiar terms and phrases are used in foreign contexts. Words garner new meaning.

So when listening to politicians debate Governor Scott Walker’s plan to force greater public sector union contributions to their own health and pension benefits, it may be getting hard to understand – and not just because of the funny Wisconsin accents.

So as a service to the nation, here is a dictionary of many of the terms you are likely to hear as the Wisconsin showdown enters its third week:

“Workers” – Refers to any one of the 356,284 individuals in the state who receives a paycheck from any level of government. When a Democrat refers to the “workers” of Wisconsin, it is these people they are referencing. The remaining 86.6% of the Wisconsin population is to be met with suspicion, and is likely employed by the Koch brothers. (See also, “worker, hard.”)

“Democracy” – Traditionally described the process of people electing individuals to office, and those officials voting on their constituents’ behalf in the state legislature. Now refers to elected officials fleeing the state in order to avoid voting.

In order to test the veracity of this new definition, you are encouraged to sit on your couch all weekend with a sign that says “this is what mowing the lawn looks like.” If your wife agrees, she is likely in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda holding up a sign.

“Hosni Mubarak” – Little known dictator of some country somewhere in the Middle East. But his thugs beat up Anderson Cooper just a couple of weeks ago, so that’s probably enough to compare him to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

“Debate” – The process by which people who disagree get together, voice their differences, and compare each other to Hitler while wearing fanny packs. Wisconsin protesters have drawn inspiration from the historical Lincoln-Douglas debates, when Lincoln famously dressed up like a gorilla and banged a drum for eleven days to annoy Douglas into submission.

“Attacking” – Asking state and local employees to pay more of their health insurance premiums and to begin paying into their own pension accounts, which they will then recoup upon retirement. However, if the cost of government increases and taxpayers are forced to pay more, it is impermissible to consider it an “attack.” (See also: assaulting, strangling, pummeling, mauling, decapitating, disemboweling.)

“Interest Group” – Any collection of individuals that uses their own money to influence a public debate is known as an “interest group.” But be careful – if a similar group uses taxpayer money boosted through dues to do the same thing, it is known as a “grassroots organization.”

“Free Speech” – Commonly afforded individuals to express their political beliefs, “free speech” is now afforded to anyone who doesn’t work for Fox News, is interviewed by Fox News, has ever watched Fox News, or has ever admired the work of Michael J. Fox.

“Dictator” – Refers to either a genocidal despot or a duly elected governor acting in concert with elected members of two houses to affect changes in the law. The two are interchangeable.

“Middle Class” –Walker’s budget repair bill is a concerted effort to destroy Wisconsin’s middle class, as it is comprised entirely of individuals who work for government. Needless to say, it will be devastating to the state’s economy to ask more of the middle class – most notably, University of Wisconsin Madison professors who make $111,000 for working nine months out of the year.

“Stifling Debate” – The parliamentary procedure of allowing testimony of 900 citizens over the span of 17 hours, then letting the minority party members that haven’t fled the state talk for over 60 hours straight in order to hold up a bill’s passage.

“Doctor” – Traditionally, a “doctor” examined a patient, made a diagnosis, and treated their malady. In Wisconsin, that process is deemed unnecessary as long as the patient is beset by a rapidly growing pension contribution. (Common side effect: chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho” for four straight days.)

“God-Given Right” – Any law change beneficial to Wisconsin government workers granted after 1959. In most cases, these rights are not granted to federal workers living in Wisconsin, so it appears many of them need to spend more time in church.

Unfortunately, the one term nobody will be using any time soon in the state senate is “the ayes have it.” As a result, a lot of government workers will soon be learning what “unemployment compensation” is.

-February 28, 2011

Remembering Tomorrow’s Union Worker Protests, Today

protestVladimir Nabokov once wrote of the “stark lucidity of a future recollection.” He was describing the act of trying to see things that are happening right now as you will remember having seen them. (Of course, he was writing about one of his characters trying to envision killing his wife so he could have sex with her 12-year old daughter. But go with me here.)

That is how I’ve vowed to look at this week in Wisconsin state government. I’d love to bottle all the hysteria regarding Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget adjustment bill and bury it in the ground for future generations to one day gaze upon. With protests at the Capitol planned all week, I have taken it upon myself to document much of the government-funded hyperventilating taking place well in advance. (Side note: Are unions really making a case for their modern relevance when they’re still holding candlelight vigils? There really hasn’t been any new advancement in protesting technology in 40 years?)

Friday, February 11th, 2011 will be a day that lives forever in the annals of Wisconsin Hot Air History. The World Series of Buffoonery took place shortly after Walker announced his plan, when a gathering of Democrat lawmakers took turns out-embarrassing themselves at a hastily called press conference. (Watch it here – but don’t drink anything while you’re viewing it – your beverage will likely end up adorning your computer screen.)

In this press conference, we heard the seeds of what would become the major themes over the weekend. Assemblyman Joe Parisi – the living answer to the question “can anyone be elected to the state legislature?” – declared that Scott Walker is going to “call in the National Guard on the citizens of Wisconsin!”

Obviously, in Parisi’s world, the code words “National Guard” are supposed to give hippies flashbacks to the days of being clubbed and maced. But sadly, Parisi’s talking point is mere delusion. At his press conference, Walker mentioned the National Guard was ready to staff, say, the prisons if the correction officers were to engage in an illegal strike. But it didn’t stop the internet from being lit up with stories of how Walker was sending the National Guard to your house to tear gas your family.

Parisi finished up by urging not to “go to war” with the people of Wisconsin. By “the people,” I assume he doesn’t mean the 80% of citizens who agree that government workers should pay into their own pensions. (Actually, I should be nice to Parisi, as his name is on my marriage certificate from his days as Dane County Clerk. I think that gives him the unilateral power to dissolve my marriage.)

Not to be outdone, State Representative Gary Hebl strode to the microphone to call Walker’s plan to eliminate public sector collective bargaining on everything except wages “unheard of” and “unprecedented.” That’s true, assuming you forget the first 100 years of Wisconsin’s existence, when there was no collective bargaining for public employees.

Hebl forged on, comparing Walker to Hosni Mubarak, saying we have the “makings of a dictator” here in Wisconsin. (The strongest link between Walker and Mubarak is that Gary Hebl has heard of both of them.) I had cast aside this preposterous line as mere hyperbole, until some people who I really like (and should really know better) began using it. In fact, someone actually set up a website calling Walker Mubarak’s “mini-me.” (A reference only slightly fresher than candlelight vigils.)

Mark Pocan finished up the presser by actually making the points reasonable Democrats should be making about the bill. It overturns 50 years of settled law, it eliminates negotiation on things like worker safety and hours, etc. But then Pocan finished with a putrid cocktail of windbaggery, wrapping the National Guard and Mubarak talking points into one. (The day before, Pocan said the bill would return us to the days of the “Robber Barons.” Presumably, he spent the latter part of Friday bunkered down at home loading up his musket.)

The key to any anti-Walker talking point is to infuse it with some sort of violent metaphor. “Scott Walker is assaulting state workers.” “Scott Walker is taking a cleaver to the people of Wisconsin.” Certainly, those are more exciting than “Scott Walker wants state employees to pay slightly more into an account which will accrue over time, which they can then cash out when they retire.” That’s not exactly a talking point that gets people in Minocqua to hop on a bus to demonstrate in Madison.

But why are they pulling up so short? It’s time to start combining violent metaphors to get the full effect. “Scott Walker is dismembering state employees, then drowning them, then lighting them on fire, then telling them off-color jokes, then lighting them on fire again, then dropping them off a building, and then running over them with his car!” Now that’s a call to action.

If this doesn’t work, it always helps to play the Nazi card. It took the Teamsters over a half day to compare Walker to Hitler (what took so long?) – but their efforts fell somewhat short. In their letter to legislators, they spelled Hitler’s name “H-I-L-T-E-R.” When you’re comparing an elected Governor to a genocidal maniac, it really is just common courtesy to use spell check.

This is only slightly more sensical than the quote of the week so far, from State Senator Spencer Coggs of Milwaukee. Coggs said “The ghost of Martin Luther King must be rolling in his grave when he anticipates in the state of Wisconsin we’re going to have what, in effect, will be legalized slavery.”

Set aside, for a moment, the fact that slave pension benefits were probably slightly less generous than that of a Wisconsin state employee. It’s troubling that Coggs said MLK’s ghost was rolling around in his grave. Why would the ghost be hanging out in Dr. King’s grave with his body? Isn’t the whole benefit of being a ghost the ability to go float around, rattle chains and stuff? I know if I’m ever a ghost the last place I’ll want to be is in a smelly grave. Ghost me is hitting the nightclub looking for ghost honeys. Anyway.

Walker has said that if state workers don’t accept his fairly modest proposal, he will have to cut up to 6,000 state employees. Thus, it would seem that a vote against his bill would be a vote to lay off 6,000 workers. When I put it this way to some Democrat friends, they strongly objected, saying that there were loads of “other options” on the table for making up the $3.6 billion deficit.

Needless to say, I love being lectured by the party who had total control of state government for the past two years regarding ALL THESE OTHER options available to close the deficit. Apparently none of which they were willing to use, as they left Walker with a $3.6 billion hole to fill.
The best theory I’ve heard, however, is that of my friend (and editor) Bill Lueders, who thinks Walker’s plan all along was to goad government workers into demonstrating at the Capitol. Says Lueders: “Protests are exactly what Walker wants, because they can only lead to two outcomes: Either they are peaceful and accomplish nothing; or they turn violent and create a massive backlash against the unions and their members. Either way, Walker wins.”

Ah, yes – Walker is begging for violent protests to change the minds 20% of Wisconsinites who aren’t already with him. He is setting a trap for all the professional protesters in Madison into acting like fools to buttress his naked power grab. (Side note – if a protest in Madison gets violent, Egypt-style, what to people throw at each other? Fair trade coffee cups? Ironic eyewear?)

Sure, some union demonstrators may end up looking like idiots over the next few days. But most of the heavy lifting has already been done for them by their sympathetic politicians. Looking stupid is what they have lawmakers for.

So, people of the future, I hope this little internet time capsule finds you well. (And congratulations on my son leading the Green Bay Packers to their 13th Super Bowl title, over Brett Favre and the Shanghai Shooters.) Hopefully, your economy has improved a great deal under President Bieber.

When you hear about all the demonstrations at the State Capitol in 2011, this little post should give you a little idea what they were about. And if it seems a little strange that so many people were willing to protest being able to keep their jobs, you’re right. Seems strange in 2011, too. -February 14, 2011

Just Who Don’t the Public Employee Unions Consider to be “Whores?”

My latest column for the Isthmus is online – it discusses AFSCME leader Marty Beil\’s routine sojourn into the meretricious arts:

As the nation endeavors to usher in an era featuring a “new tone” in politics, AFSCME’s Marty Beil thinks the old tone suits him just fine, thank you.

In December, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker shocked his Democratic colleagues by voting against a last-minute attempt to ram through 19 public employee union contracts. Beil, the executive director of AFSCME Council 24, representing state workers, responded by calling Decker a “whore.” “Not a prostitute, a whore. W-H-O-R-E,” Beil proudly intoned, as if he were a pimply middle-schooler conquering a spelling bee word.


So Marty Beil will continue to do what he’s paid to do, but he’ll be doing it against a tidal wave of public and legislative sentiment. He may even continue to call people names.

But being a “whore” means you’re paid for your work. If Beil continues to agitate in such a juvenile manner, the Legislature would be happy to screw his members for free.

Read the whole thing here.

Why a Lame Duck Session Could be Good For Unions, but Bad for Taxpayers

duckFor the first time in ages, Wisconsin is going to have a new governor that did not rise to the state’s top job from the ranks of state government. Yet the specter of one of the current candidates is already affecting how the current state government does business.

The polls may be close, but Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has held a consistent lead in the gubernatorial race against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. This fact is not lost on the elected officials and bureaucrats in Madison, who have been bracing state government for a win by the conservative Walker.

For instance, Walker has said that if elected, he would make it his mission to stop construction of a federally-funded $810 million rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. As a response, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) reacted by shoveling as much money out the door as possible, to make it more difficult for a potential Governor Walker to stop its construction. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, $300 million will be committed to the project by the end of 2010, up from the $50 million previously estimated.

Other legislative actions attempted to buttress state government against Walker’s potential victory. In its waning session days, the Wisconsin Legislature entertained proposals to extend the tenure of existing cabinet secretaries (making sure they stay in office well into Walker’s first term), and further restricting the Wisconsin governor’s veto authority – a move Democrats resisted during Jim Doyle’s tenure.

And while the session has ended and legislators are strewn throughout the state trying to get themselves re-elected, legislative Democrats still have one large pre-emptive chip to play: state employee union contracts.

Every two years, the Legislature sets aside funds to pay for unionized state employee raises. For the 2010-11 fiscal years, $351 million was budgeted for this compensation reserve fund.

Once the money is set aside, the state Department of Employment Relations (DER) is charged with negotiating contracts with the state’s 19 professional unions. Currently, all 19 units are actively negotiating with the state. Once agreement is reached with the state, each bargaining unit must go back to their members and ratify the contracts before they are voted on by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employee Relations.

Normally, this is a fairly lengthy process. But with a new governor entering office in three months, this isn’t a normal year.

Consider the fact that union-friendly Democrats hold control of the State Legislature all the way up until the new session begins on January 3rd of 2011 (the heads of both legislative houses are former labor leaders). Also, consider that former state senator and Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Joe Wineke is the DER representative negotiating on the state’s behalf. Wineke, currently the Administrator of the DER’s Division of Compensation and Labor Relations, has a long history of supporting union-friendly legislation, including “card check” proposals that would allow greater intimidation of workers hesitant to unionize.

The calculus isn’t difficult. There’s a large pot of money waiting to be handed out to unionized state employees, and the process is controlled by the legislators most likely to reward those employees with pay raises. And with a fiscal conservative like Scott Walker poised to take control of the governorship, this might be their last chance to reap the largesse of the state’s compensation fund.

If settlements are reached with the unions soon, it could only be a matter of weeks before the contracts are ratified and sent to the Legislature for approval. Democrats would have to bless the contracts during their lame duck session, which to this point would be unprecedented. But they’re two years away from another election, and many of them will be leaving the chambers for good when the new session begins.

The unions themselves have noticed. On their website, the Wisconsin State Employees Union has specifically called for a legislative special session in November or December, so they can get Governor Doyle’s signature on their contracts by January 1st:

“Our window of opportunity gets narrower if we decide to settle, we would want to gain legislative approval and the governor’s signature before January 1, meaning we only have November and part of December to have a special session called for ratification.”

What’s stopping them?

-October 20, 2010

Government’s Billion Dollar Word

In the world of linguistics, words actually mean things. In many cases, tacking one qualifying word on to another can completely change the meaning of the original word being used. For instance, everyone enjoys a juicy apple. But one would be hard pressed to find someone that enjoys a “horse apple” in the same way. We often associate “wind” with a cool, gentle breeze. But if someone “breaks wind,” it’s liable to clear out your dinner party. If someone offers you “water,” they might think you’re thirsty. If someone offers you “waterboarding,” then you should immediately begin digging a getaway tunnel.

Even state government has its own language that often employs such qualifiers to its own benefit. Under the Wisconsin Constitution, the state may not run a “deficit,” meaning the books have to be balanced on a cash-in, cash-out basis. Yet the state continually runs a “structural deficit,” meaning its government merely pushes off much of its spending into future fiscal years, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab down the road. In the case of the 2009-2011 budget, Governor Doyle’s acceptance of the word “structural” is worth about a billion and a half dollars to the taxpayer.

Conversely, in the cases where it helps to grow government, meaningful adjectives are cast aside to allow for profligate spending. Take, for instance, the way we fund state government employee retirement benefits.

Under the current Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS), each state government employee earns a taxpayer-funded employer contribution of roughly 5% of their salary every year. These same employees are expected to kick in an annual “employee contribution” of a similar amount – but in actuality, state government pays each employee’s individual contribution for them. In 2007, 99.6% of all contributions made to the WRS – both the “employee” and “employer” portions – were paid by state taxpayers.

In short, the “employee contribution” is nothing of the sort – there’s a better chance of seeing a “clay pigeon” eating birdseed than of seeing a government employee contributing a cent to their own retirement benefits. In 2007, these contributions combined cost taxpayers $393 million, and that’s just for employees at the state level.

Several weeks ago, Governor Jim Doyle announced that the state’s fiscal situation is going to much worse than he had anticipated. Lagging tax receipts and previous fiscal mismanagement could very well drive the state deficit up by $1.6 billion. As a remedy, Doyle suggested state employee cuts and furloughs, as well as funding reductions for school districts and local services. Many local governments are also looking at cutting staff and services.

Yet to date, no one has proposed an obvious budget remedy – merely making the term “employee contribution” mean exactly what it says. Requiring the WRS’ 263,000 participants to invest just a small amount of their money in their own retirement system could save state and local governments in the neighborhood of $1.3 billion over the upcoming biennium. Consequently, these governments could eliminate many of the program cuts that they are warning would be so damaging. Children would continue to learn, fires would continue to be put out, and garbage pickup would proceed on schedule if governments took the term “employee contribution” literally.

According to the state Department of Workforce Development, Wisconsin’s private sector lost 128,000 jobs in the last year, while government jobs actually increased by 5,700. To this point, the only sacrifice made by state employees has been to avoid running over all the private sector unemployed people wandering the streets on their drive to work.

Putting the “employee” back in “employee contribution” can go a long way to leveling the playing field between the state’s public and private employers, and eventually save the jobs of many of those government employees that will inevitably resist such a plan.

In 2003, Governor Doyle said he would be “open to every solution” that would allow him to fix the state’s shortfall without taxes. He could start by making the term “employee contribution” mean something again.

-June 1, 2009