Press Talk: Newton’s laws & public unions

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor



Good morning, class.

Today, let’s discuss classical mechanics — the physical laws describing the motion of bodies under the … yes, Jimmy?

“Are you kidding me? Newton’s laws? Come on, man! Let’s talk about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s thumping of the unions’ attempt to get him recalled.”

Jimmy, ring the bell! You’re right. Who can help set the stage on this? How did Walker end up in this spot? Danni?

“Well, simply put, Walker felt the state government couldn’t sustain the rich benefits and pension plans that government workers were getting.”

Good. Then what happened? Cooper?

“The unions turned the Wisconsin capital into a zoo. They protested, occupied buildings, beat drums, we all saw it on TV. It was a madhouse. Later the unions organized a petition drive to get Walker recalled.”

OK, but let’s get to the core of what’s going on. And are there any local examples? Jake?

“Let me run a theory by the class, professor. What’s going on is, benefits and retirement pensions for public workers are out of control and taxpayers have to pick up the tab for all of this. And taxpayers — mostly private workers — are tired of spending their money for government workers’ benefits and pensions. Heck, most of the private workers don’t even have a pension.”

Good point, Jake. Now could someone find a connection to anything going on locally? Hannah?

“Right now, Vancouver is looking at convincing residents they should enact a levy for parks. They are making the case that because parks money is coming out of the general fund, it’s pitted against public safety needs and the parks will lose that battle.

“But rather than pitting parks against police, shouldn’t they be pitting parks and police against public pensions?”

Wow. Jimmy, ring the bell again! I’m told that in several examples from Wisconsin, once they cut back on benefits and pensions, they were able to keep more teachers in the classrooms. Yes, Fernando?

“Well, but shouldn’t government workers get just as much as private workers?”

Noodles, you have something?

“Of course they should, but the key is most government workers are getting way more than private workers. Cutting them back wouldn’t put them behind most private workers. Why do you think so few people voluntarily leave the public sector?”


“But I don’t get it, professor. Why are politicians more interested in giving things to public workers than looking out for the taxpayers?”


“First, most of these politicians are getting the same sweet deal in benefits and pensions as the workers. So cutting back on public pensions would cut back on them. Second, they’re not playing with their money, they’re playing with taxpayer money.

“Third, private-sector working stiffs aren’t organized like governmental workers. Before Wisconsin, many politicians were intimidated by the perceived power of a union and how that might hurt their re-election bid.”

Yes Max, final thoughts?

“How sad. And frustrating. If Newton were alive today, his First Law might go something like this: ‘A politician doing the wrong thing tends to continue to do the wrong thing unless external forces are applied to it.'”

Maybe that external force is voting. Class dismissed.

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor. Reach him at 360-735-4505, or

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