Targets On Their Backs
I examined the plight of public employee unions in two earlier stories. In this Isthmus cover piece, I take a wider and deeper look at their problems.
The story begins:
In September, before the Chazen Museum of Art began stashing some of its collection to make room for construction, I stopped in to see John Steuart Curry’s iconic paintings of the Midwestern countryside. The half-dozen paintings, largely executed during Curry’s groundbreaking tenure as artist in residence at the UW-Madison College of Agriculture (from 1936 to 1946), include his portrait of ag dean Chris Lauriths Christensen striding through an experimental cornfield, tie flapping in the wind. It’s a stunning painting.Christensen’s face radiates determination and purpose. Clearly, he was a man on a mission, bringing university research and government help to Wisconsin farmers battered by the Great Depression.
And what great help it was. The ag school scored one breakthrough after another to enhance dairy and other farming — everything from vitamin D activation, to bull semen preservation, to fostering farmer-controlled cooperatives.
By this time, Fighting Bob La Follette and other Progressive leaders had transformed state government, regulating highhanded railroads, replacing the crony system with the nonpartisan civil service, setting a minimum wage, establishing worker’s compensation, instituting progressive taxation and embracing “The Wisconsin Idea,” where university professors would bring their knowledge to the four corners of the state.
Seventy years later, a remarkable turnaround has occurred. Government isn’t seen as a savior of the recession-battered citizenry. Instead, government itself has been defined as the problem, and public employees find themselves portrayed as villains for what is deemed to be their recession-proof jobs, Cadillac health insurance and gold-plated pensions.
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