If a real union reform battle can take place in Wisconsin and spread to other liberal rust-belt, union-dominated states, then it could perhaps happen in California —- although it might take some time, given the political dynamic here and the Golden State’s “follows its own drummer” ethic.

Wisconsin, and Madison in particular, is a surprisingly liberal place, with a Progressive tradition that echoes California’s past. As the Wisconsin Historical Society explains, “The Wisconsin Idea, as it came to be called, was that efficient government required control of institutions by the voters rather than special interests, and that the involvement of specialists in law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the most effective government.”

Progressivism is buncombe —- based on the idea that expert elites should run things, but the similarities between the states’ political history are striking. Indeed, California’s Progressive history led to this state’s wide use of the initiative, recall and referendum —- forms of direct democracy designed to counter the power of special interests.

Unlike Wisconsin’s voters, Californians aren’t about to put conservative Republicans in power any time soon, but our state’s voters have a strong conservative tilt when it comes to deciding initiatives.

Ironically, the liberal elements that have dominated Wisconsin and California politics have now become the powerful ruling elite, with political muscle and special protections rivaled by the railroad barons who spurred the old-time Progressives. Public employees are the new elites, and opinion polls suggest that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s approach is resonating with voters who see the unfairness of a system in which public “servants” enjoy compensation packages and protections far beyond what private-sector workers receive.

I still chuckle at the tilt of the callers who questioned me during an interview on a public radio station last year in Madison. It’s the angriest response I’ve received —- far more so than the polite and occasionally agreeable calls I received while debating the public employee issue on public radio in San Francisco. The old-time leftism was almost quaint. Madison callers ranted about corporate greed and insisted that the real pension problem is that private-sector employees are not receiving enough of a retirement benefit —- a truism that’s is akin to saying that the real problem with the health system is that people aren’t getting enough health care.

Yes, but there’s no magic wand to give every American one of those typical government retirement deals that’s the equivalent of having several million dollars in the bank. The cynical side of me thinks that the answer might be to have the state government grant every worker in the public and private sectors a “3 percent at 50″ retirement (90 percent of final year’s pay after 30 years of work, available at age 50). In about a week, after the government and economy collapse, we can go about rebuilding the pension system from scratch, which ultimately is what needs to be done.

I recall that interview because at the time, I wrote that state off as hopeless. “These folks will never get it.” I was wrong.

Running out of money really focuses the mind, even the minds of government officials. Wisconsin Republicans —- despite their politically savvy but disappointing choice to exempt police and firefighters from their reforms —- understand that the real long-term problem is the collective-bargaining process.

Sure, the unions have agreed to contribution increases to bolster their struggling pension funds, but they know such increases can always be made up at the bargaining table once the storm blows over and the economy starts humming again.

Collective bargaining —- the ability of unions to bargain on behalf of entire groups of workers —- is bad enough in the private sector, but it’s a nightmare in the public sector. Essentially, unions get to elect their own bosses. Public employees already enjoy strong civil service protections. The whole idea of the civil service system, designed to fight politicization and cronyism in the bureaucracy, is that the employee has an ownership right in the job. Throw union protections on top of that, and the taxpayer doesn’t have a chance.

Collective bargaining makes it impossible for governments to consider privatization and other cost-saving reforms, because unions will never assent to that in the negotiating process. Collective bargaining allows unions to implement nonsensical and counterproductive work rules that harm efficiency and customer service. Unions protect even the worst actors among their ranks, and because everyone in a collective-bargaining unit essentially is treated the same, it promotes a race to the bottom in terms of performance.

Collective bargaining is why it takes years to fire incompetent teachers. It’s why the state has run up a pension debt estimated at a half-trillion dollars, according to a Stanford University report. There is no countervailing weight to this, and even Republicans often side with unions mostly for political reasons.

In California, different reform factions support different approaches. Everyone agrees, though, that reform here must come through that Progressive tradition of the initiative process. One initiative proposal would significantly reduce pension benefits. Another one advocates paycheck protection, limiting the ability of unions to directly take money from members’ paychecks for political activity. There’s even talk of an initiative that would end collective bargaining.

So far, Gov. Jerry Brown has been protecting the unions, which are getting a great payback for their record expenditures on his behalf. There’s some debate among Republicans about whether to endorse putting Brown’s tax extensions on the ballot, provided that pension reform goes to voters.

We’ll see. Union employees held a pointless rally Tuesday at the Capitol to show solidarity with Wisconsin government workers. In California, there’s no need for union members to storm the Capitol, given that they already own it. If anyone needs to fill the building’s halls, it is taxpayers, who get little say over there.

Again, if it can happen in Progressive Wisconsin, it can happen in Progressive California. As the money runs out, the question is when.

About the author: Steven Greenhut is the editor-in-chief of Cal Watchdog, an independent, Sacramento-based journalism venture providing original investigative reports and news stories covering California state government. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”

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