As much as the recent collective-bargaining fight in Wisconsin was about ideology and politics, it was also about math. State revenues were down, so budget cuts were needed, including aid to municipalities.
Gov. Scott Walker wanted concessions from the unions that would keep cash-strapped municipalities from having to raise local taxes. But after he decided the concessions the unions agreed to weren't enough, he and the Legislature slashed government workers' collective-bargaining rights.
Wisconsin's predicament isn't isolated. Blame the Great Recession, blame a dramatic drop in tax revenue, blame the end of federal stimulus money. The simple reality is that the states are in fiscal trouble, with an estimated collective budget deficit of $175 billion through 2013.
Gov. Corbett is trying to deal with a $4 billion deficit, and New Jersey has had deficits double and almost triple that amount in recent years. A number of other states are also seeking concessions from unions, including changes to collective bargaining.
In fact, just last month, hoping to save cities and towns $100 million next year, another state House voted overwhelmingly, 111-42, to limit municipal workers' bargaining rights for health care.
That state's governor praised the "important" vote, and the state Senate is expected to address the issue this week.
Another gaggle of union-busting ideologues? Hardly. This was in Massachusetts, where Democrats hold overwhelming majorities in the legislature; 81 of those 111 yeas were from D's. The governor, Deval Patrick, is an ally of President Obama, who criticized what happened in Wisconsin.
Massachusetts' government-employee unions aren't happy either, but so far there has been no Wisconsin-level reaction. And there has been no White House talk of an "assault" on unions, as was the case with Wisconsin.
Is the muted reaction to Massachusetts' vote solely about politics? Or does it reflect greater public acceptance of the fiscal reality the states face?
Facing reality is always a good first step. The preferred second step would be to negotiate concessions based on reality, and not engage in labor strife that benefits neither unions nor taxpayers.