Wisconsin’s Unions Can Use a Good Kick in the Ass


“It’s late and she is waiting, and I know I must go home,

But every time I start to leave, they play another song,

Then someone buys another round and whatever drinks are free,

What made Milwaukee famous has made a loser out of me.”

In light of recent political events and as a twelve-year, soon-to-be ex-Milwaukee, ex-Wisconsin resident, any nostalgia for the happy days of “Fighting Bob” La Follette and Wisconsin labor unions sets my teeth on edge. Those days are long gone, and gone too are their chief enablers — an industrial economy based on mechanized global war, cheap and wastefully used energy, and an all but officially segregated society. It’s worth remembering that intact neighborhoods and family-supporting wages came at costs that included these profound evils, most of all the segregation that made Wisconsin’s biggest city famous not for beer but for racism as the “Selma of the North.”

Still the biggest city and metro region in the state, still mired in segregation, but stripped of a healthy local economy that’s marched off to the ‘burbs, Milwaukee continues to cling to nostalgia for the days of municipal socialism, without much thought to how its bills get paid — or don’t. This year, that’s probably going to change — one of the salutary benefits of newly minted Republican Scott Walker’s fiscal revanchism, which includes a plan to take away collective bargaining for certain public sector unions and the groundwork for selling off heating, cooling, and power plants in no-bid deals to billionaire supporters.

Widely decried as an attack on the middle class, the working man, ancient right, sacred custom, and great progressive ideals, Governor Walker’s budget “reform” bill is not without one source of significant appeal: as a well-earned kick in the rustbelt’s ass that stands to spread to other states.

Deep denial and a backward-facing economic vision can be found all over the old industrial north, in small towns and cities where a self-serving protectionistic conservatism tends to rack up votes for Democrats — but not always. Remember the corpulent white midwesterners Obama trotted out at his nomination to recite stories befitting a three decades old Springsteen lyric? They are the ones the Clintons exploited masterfully for their racism on the path to the 2008 Democratic nomination.[b] They’re among those Obama described as responding to decades-old job losses with bitterness, guns and religion as crutches, and “antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” It should be a bipartisan consensus that this mixture of resentment, nostalgia, and self-entitlement needs to be put to down once and for all, and not just because it spawns reactions aplenty to upset politicians on both sides of the aisle.

I don’t think public utilities and unions are intrinsically bad, and I enjoy the drama of swing states in elections. The problem with the old quasi-socialistic rustbelt ethos is that its worst aspects have thrived while the larger benefits — and the means to pay for them — have all but dropped dead.

Milwaukee is a good example of the problem. The County is close to failing under the weight of its debt obligations on employee benefit funds. The public school district, which has failed in every other way it possibly can fail, will soon fail financially, even without Walker and Associates defunding it. (His predecessor Jim Doyle was not generous with MPS either.) The police and firefighters, whom Governor Walker has promised not to touch, are a budgetary millstone dragging the City of Milwaukee to ruin.

For schools and police, Milwaukee residents and homeowners pay more for less, if not worse service and new scandals[c] every year. It is a problem austerity can’t solve. Even in good times, Milwaukeeans pay a premium to support mediocrity and failure. The police and schools reliably deliver bad results and resist accountability, transparency, and reform.

This is usually where the protestations of “it’s not our fault!” come in as a reason to keep paying failure forward. It’s well known what happened to the old “happy days” in so many cities like Milwaukee, but it is not quite the same story everywhere. Unlike Detroit, Milwaukee had a bad but not devastating population loss following civil rights struggles, race riots, and the loss of good-paying unskilled manufacturing jobs. Losing 100,000 people between 1960 and 1980 was no walk in the park, but the numbers have come back up since then. Unfortunately the costs have come up too, the jobs have not, and a “minority-majority” status does not connote the type of things today that Martin Luther King hoped it would, for the fourth poorest city in the nation.

Reasonably intelligent people care can’t put up with conditions like this for long without seeking escape in apathy or the bullhorns of partisan polemic. When people take those routes, the community suffers. Others simply leave.

What is uniquely depressing about Milwaukee’s decline is that it seems to be so self-inflicted and based in willfully untapped potential. One example of this stands out above all others, and it’s this: every major ethnic group here, but most of all white Milwaukeeans, have responded to the challenges of our times by staying out of school.

Truancy rates in Milwaukee are terrible, but that’s not what I’m referring to. A Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter (they  still have a few) looked at the new census data last year and discovered that a Milwaukee resident is far less likely to have finished a post-secondary degree than their counterparts in any of the nation’s fifty largest cities.

This statistic can’t be blamed on the usual suspects of race and poverty, even though race, poverty, and lack of educational attainment correlate very strongly. Far behind the average of black and Hispanic residents, white Milwaukee is a whopping fifteen percentage points behind its peers in contrast to the six point lag for African American residents. This education gap has set the city so far behind, it needs 36,000 people with college degrees just to become average.

Average seems to be an impossibly high goal because Milwaukee actually gains fewer than 1,000 degree holders each year despite having plenty of colleges and universities, including many that cater specifically to poor, older adult, and vocationally focused students. Apparently graduates leave the city at an even greater rate than is typical in a state afflicted with brain drain, probably because the jobs aren’t here, and with this type of mechanism in place, they never will be.

When families and businesses are thinking about moving to the metro area, education is a big reason why they opt for the suburbs or farther afield, and it is the most legitimate reason they have. It’s never nice to see the often snotty and prejudicial ways this choice can be expressed, but the true lack of quality schools, an educated workforce, and a culture of stimulating peers for the educated doesn’t offer much in the way of a meaningful retort. Maybe that’s a good thing, in light of Chrysler’s Superbowl ad, where a scowling Eminem in a luxury car stands up for derelict downtown Detroit. Silence is better than vain and empty thuggish posturing.

Given the anti-educational ethos of the “genuine American city” (as the previous mayor’s administration tried to brand it), Milwaukee appears not as a bunch of scrappy underdogs to cheer for, as we lift a glass to unions protecting jobs from China, India, or Kentucky. Rather, it looks like it’s far too full of underachievers who deserve a good kick in the ass from someone, anyone, in the absence of any indigenous leadership and fortitude.

As a city resident, it is heresy to say it, but Southeastern Wisconsin’s self-described “conservative” radio ranting (all toxicity, no solutions) is largely correct when it blames the area’s socialist legacy for today’s problems. Usually this is an unsubtle and unhelpful code for “blacks and liberals” and whatever conspiracy they’re supposed to have cooked up this week. The opposing viewpoint, put forward mainly by white liberals, offers a more nuanced but substantially similar explanation: poverty, bad schools, segregation, lack of jobs, and other problems that disproportionately affect the minority-majority population. In this view, the underprivileged can’t be expected to locate their socks in the morning, let alone secure a job, given the hardships. Intelligent, self-respecting people of color chafe under both descriptions, and if they are young and driven, they tend to leave the city faster than anyone else.

The metropolitan business community, to its credit, refers more circumspectly to Milwaukee’s “lack of an entrepreneurial culture,” which has the benefit of not taking an ideological position against “socialism” or identifying any group as especially affected or blameworthy. Others, in informal settings, bluntly describe Milwaukee as “anti-entrepreneurial,” make the connection with the socialist past, and mention unions. This too is fair. If local conservatives want to identify the anti-entrepreneurial spirit with a racial group and political ideology, they should acknowledge it’s white people with several generations of roots here. That’s who has been affected by the self-protectionism of union jobs enough to believe a high school education is good enough.

Because I am a true bastard (and not for all these other reasons), when I heard Governor Walker was going after the public service unions, I thought, “Good! I hope this gets extended to every last one of them, especially the cops.” [d]

Let’s think, too, of the public works employee I drank with one Sunday night at a favorite local dive bar. He had his arm in a sling from his last bender the previous week and was praising the benefits of his “socialized” healthcare.

Let’s think of the cops who can tell you, to a day, not just when their next vacation is but when they will retire and exactly what amount they have coming to them. I think of their disgust for the city residency that’s required of them, and how they will be peeling out when their last day comes. I think of one officer’s hatred for public transit and sense of pity for me as a bus rider with kids in a public school–one of the good ones just down the street. In his mind, he had done better for his kids, and he had paid more than we are likely to ever pay for their educations. The desire to move your kids up the food chain can be a good thing, but seeing it as being totally unserved and even opposed by the larger community and its public options is an indicator of some serious problems.

Let’s think of the teachers and other city and county workers who are much happier living in their neighborhoods than those cops, but they balk at the schools above the elementary grades because that is where good sense does say “time to get out.” They are often quite honest about how their union resists reform and throws better educators under the wheels of its seniority system when cuts have to be made. They excuse their complicity and shrug off responsibility in the usual way — it’s their job. Of all the things they have reasons to protest, it’s the threat to their union’s power that has them camping out in the capitol. For the children.

Let’s think about the not quite good, not quite bad neighborhoods with a good deal of people who owe their livelihood to public funding getting in the face of virtually any new development project as “gentrification.” Some have looked the other way, or even cheered, when new construction — built by people who live in the neighborhood — has been vandalized or burned.  Up a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder, the same resentments flare toward locally-grown businesses that get “too big,” toward condos and “yuppies.”

Let’s think of the waves of perpetually adolescent people who are rebranded periodically as they generationally reject each other. Hippies, punks, hipsters, and other urban crackers. What they have in common is a love-hate relationship with crime, blight, and work/making money. (Someone got shot, but rents are low! Working sucks, but it pays for the beer!) I think of how this is why I can tell my kids pot is not a big deal as a drug — it’s really the people it tends to come with and definitely the time it kills that makes it unworthy of sustained interest.

These are not the most important vignettes and gripes I’ve accumulated, or even particularly striking ones. I could tell you a lot about how the truly poor descendants of deep south slaves and sharecroppers live, but what sticks in my craw is how those who have so much more just sit on their hands and guard what they’ve got.

I’m not saying there aren’t good, conscientious people and public servants here trying to do do their best — there are. There are also a lot of bums, mediocre workers, and periodically some outright crooks. They all co-exist in what is overall a failing, unsustainable mess. You can find plenty of boosters and apologists, but they are bound to be drawing down paychecks on the public dime if it’s not a lack of school age kids or a small enclave of affluence that blinds them to reality.

Under every administration, Wisconsin’s capitol and the rest of the state’s policy toward its biggest city has been to keep it disempowered as a taxing authority and shorted on school funding and shared revenue. Governor Walker is taking this “screw Milwaukee” game to a new level with his budget bill. At the same time, more funding will not fix the problems the city has, not even the financial ones. That is why I can’t muster any sympathy for the unions the governor is going after. Maybe kicking the legs out from under the last vestiges of old socialist Milwaukee will actually do it some good in the long run. Maybe even save the city from itself.

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