During the November 2010 midterm election cycle, we Americans found out that Republicans are serious about reducing the deficit. Of course, the GOP must have decided on this position only after former president George W. Bush left office because he ran up record deficits by engaging in two wars and not raising taxes — but that’s a story for another time. This new commitment to fiscal responsibility has materialized in Wisconsin where Republican Gov. Scott Walker wants to force public sector unions to pay more for their benefits and to receive pay cuts. Sounds good, right? Unions should have to pitch in like everyone else to help the state and the country weather this recession.

As it turns out, the unions agree. In fact, they have made all the financial concessions that Walker has asked for in his new bill. So, what is the ruckus about? Apparently, Walker also wants to strip unions of collective bargaining rights. Financial benefits for the state from doing this would be… almost nothing. So, why does Walker want to do this to unions that are important to average working-class Americans? Wasn’t this bill supposed to be concerned only with fiscal issues? Good question.

The fact that Walker insists on stripping unions of collective bargaining rights — even when his financial demands are met — shows that he isn’t actually concerned about deficit reduction. His goal, deep inside, is to bust the unions. He might say this bill isn’t about our cherished unions and that it’s all about budget, but that mantra is a façade. Busting the Democratic-leaning public sector unions would be a huge political boon for the GOP because unions are the last reliably liberal group that can compete with typically conservative big businesses in terms of political influence. For Walker, this move is a political “power grab” that has nothing to do with the deficit.

Even if you believe Walker is really only concerned about the deficit and that he sees breaking up unions as a necessary evil, this move seems to be antithetical to GOP “principles.” When President Barack Obama was trying to pass his health care reform law, Republicans complained loudly about how the bill was being “jammed down our throats” against the will of the people. Their point was that Washington shouldn’t legislate without consent of the governed, and average Americans should have a say — a very American idea indeed. But when it comes to those same average Americans union workers, the GOP suddenly doesn’t want the voices of those workers to be heard anymore. Instead, Republicans would prefer that they be run over roughshod without the right to collectively bargain. By the way, if you still believe Walker is a deficit hawk, please know that he recently passed tax cuts that would add $100 million to Wisconsin’s projected budget deficit.

Perhaps one of the worst things to come out of the Wisconsin union battle is the demonization of teachers as people who live off the proverbial “gravy train.” When did America get the reputation of treating its public school teachers extremely well? One of the reasons that American students are lagging behind their counterparts in other countries is that teaching isn’t a very appealing job, leading to top talent in America often looking elsewhere for work. That’s not to say we don’t have great teachers — the point is that their lifestyles are nowhere close to lavish. But for the sake of debate, let’s say that teachers have extravagant livelihoods that the GOP feels should be limited. Then why do they say in the next breath that we need to protect the people making more than $250,000 per year and that they should receive bigger tax breaks than everyone else in this economic climate? According to Fox News, those top 2 percent of households aren’t as well to do as many think and need help. But teachers? Let’s take down those fat cats.

Republicans dream of cycles like these: lowering taxes for the wealthy, running up deficits and then cutting benefits for the middle and lower class in the name of deficit reduction. It’s unpatriotic, and now the GOP isn’t even being honest about it. Using deficit reduction to disguise their union-crushing power grabs is clever, but that doesn’t make it right. The American people see that it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s about killing the unions. And unions are as American as apple pie.

Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at chendw@umich.edu.

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