'Shop Talk': All Eyes On Wisconsin's Political Showdown

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The dramatic showdown between state Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin over the Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair plan continues to draw attention and stir nationwide debate. Also, the recent suicide of former NFL player Dave Duerson brings renewed focus to sports-related brain injuries. Host Michel Martin gets opinion and analysis from regular contributors author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and sportswriter Pablo Torre.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Ruben Navarrette and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Author): Thanks, Michel. Sounds like somebody's drinking a tasty beverage. Hey, fellas.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, it's my tea. Started having a little frog in my throat. Sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist): How could you?

Mr. IZRAEL: It's OK. How's everybody doing today anyway?

MARTIN: Throw me under the bus.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney): Yo.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated) This is where play can we make the liquid come out of Michel's nose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: That's my favorite game.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I'll work on it. I'll work on it.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right, all right, all right. Let's get things started by expanding on what we heard earlier in the show: the fight in Wisconsin over state workers union bargaining. Now, all of Wisconsin's Democratic state senators are still somewhere in Illinois trying to hold off on a final vote on the Republican governor's budget repair bill. That bill includes language, critics say, will bust the public employees unions, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, this story has just taken on so many dimensions. And clearly he did not mean this part of it to be public, but Governor Walker, a Republican, told a blogger and a journalist who was posing as the billionaire donor David Koch, who's become known, along with his brother, for funding, you know, conservative causes of various stripes, that this is a big moment in time not just for his state, but for others, especially with Republican governors like John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Snyder in Michigan. This is a little bit from that prank call - he didn't know it was a prank - from the website Buffalo Beast.

(Soundbite of phone call)

Governor SCOTT WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): That's all they want to talk about is what are doing helping the governor of Wisconsin? You know, the next question, I talk to Kasich every day, you know, John's got to stand firm in Ohio. I think we do the same thing with Rick Scott in Florida. I think Snyder, if he got a little more support probably could do it in Michigan. I mean, you start going down the list, you know, a lot of us, there's a lot of us new governors who got elected to do something big.

Mr. IAN MURPHY ("Buffalo Beast"): You're the first domino.

Gov. WALKER: Yep. This is our moment.

Mr. IZRAEL: Doh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I'm not sure why that's a big deal. I mean...

MARTIN: It's interesting.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That clip.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, that clip...

Mr. IZRAEL: Ruben, go ahead.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I mean it's, you know, it's just it's a guy talking. The statement from Walker's office is that this is, you know, nothing he wouldn't have said public or hadn't already said publicly or whatever. But, the main thing that troubles me is that the numbers just don't add up in terms of public pension, unions, public pensions in this country - public employee pensions in this country.

And I say that, remember, I live in San Diego - the most insolvent city in the most insolvent state in the country. And the reason is we have retired police officers and firemen - speaking to you as the son of a cop, nothing but love here - we have retired cops who make more in retirement than they did when they were working. We have a retired librarian who was the head librarian in San Diego, who made $160,000 when she was working; she makes $227 now that she's retired. You can't sustain that under normal circumstances.

And in Wisconsin, it's all part of this whole big story. You also have to deal with the fact that demographically you have, say it with me, 70 million baby boomers who are about to retire. This thing is not - this doesn't pencil out. We don't have the money.

And Walker can be taped talking to this person or that person or whatever, but it's not a joke. We don't have the money to pay the bills necessary to fulfill all the obligations under these public employee pensions. And the Democrats don't get that because they're in the back pocket of the labor unions that secured the pensions. You got to keep it real. We don't have the money.

MARTIN: Well, what about Arsalan? I don't know.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. Ruben, we do need to keep it real. You know, this is also a political football that's being used by Governor Scott Walker. Let's not forget that there's two prongs to this whole debate. First is the request for unions to pay more money out of pocket for benefits, which they've already conceded to.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Now the second part where Walker's tried...

MARTIN: Well, because remember the auto workers unions have agreed.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: They voted on packages and givebacks.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. The second the part, political football part of it is him trying to eliminate the collective bargaining power of these unions afterwards. So it's basically, you've already agreed to give more money out of pocket and now we're saying in the future we're trying to essentially union bust you, you know, to the point where, you know...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Wow.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...Shepard Smith and your buddy Juan Williams on Fox News even said that...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah. He is my buddy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I know. To actually say that this is just about the deficit is quote "duck feathers." I mean this is malarkey in the sense that, you know, he's using a political football here. You know, the top 10 donors in America...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You're not getting this. Arsalan, you're not getting this. It's very simple. If you are on the liberal side of the fence, you have to respect what FDR said in the '30s about the fact that collective bargaining cannot be used with public employees. And I'll explain why. When you work for a private company - and I support collective bargaining with private companies - but when you're dealing with a private company the one thing that has to happen is if you push too hard on that private company that private company will go bankrupt...

MARTIN: Well...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...and everybody loses. Public cities and states don't go bankrupt that easily. So collective bargaining is not the problem. It's collective bargaining with public employees. That's the problem.

MARTIN: Well, we already had that conversation earlier in the program, so I didn't want to plow the ground again. One of the things I was curious about, your guys' perspective on this, Jimi, I'm curious what you think about this too, is this whole of idea the Democrats kind of decamping to another state. Because what they're saying is that because Republicans control both houses of the legislature...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...and the governor's office, and they know that they're going to lose on the vote. And they're saying that this is the only way they can get the governor to at least hear what they have to say. And I'm just curious about what you all think about that.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: To deny quorum.

MARTIN: To deny them a quorum.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: That's the only reason that that works in the Senate. So I'm just wondering what people think about that.

Mr. IZRAEL: I think it's cowardly but I think it's brilliant. I think, well both.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think it's been done before. It's not...

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I don't fault the Democrats for this at all. I don't fault the Democrats for this. This is the device they use and the Republicans try to chase them around with the state troopers. But I saw this firsthand in Texas. When I was working for the Dallas Morning News it was the Texas Democrats who fled to New Mexico and to Oklahoma to avoid a quorum. So it's been done before. I supported the Democrats when they fled before. I have to support the Democrats now. It's a perfectly legitimate device.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And in return, the state says well, we're not going to pay you for those days. Again, that's not the problem. That's a sideshow. That's not the issue. The issue is where's the money? This stuff doesn't pencil out. How do we pay for it?

MARTIN: Well, the only question I have though is if you negotiate your contract in good faith with anybody...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...and then the circumstances change, why don't you then renegotiate it? Why is that different for people who are bargaining as a group as opposed to bargaining as individuals? That's the question I have. A contract is a contract.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. You just don't want to renegotiate.

MARTIN: So you're basically saying instead of renegotiating the terms, they're saying no, you, I'm going to deprive you of the ability to negotiate. And that's the question that I have.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: But unions won't do that, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, they've already done that. What are you talking about? They've already done that.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Unions will not unions will not renegotiate these deals. For instance in San Diego and other cities the city has gone to court to try to change the law basically to say can we invalidate these old contracts? We don't have the money for this and issue new contracts. And the judges have typically said no a deals a deal. So we're back to square one again.

And the big difference is again, when you're working at a private company, you have - the company can go broke, but they're banking on the fact that the state of Wisconsin can't go broke. They're just going to pass the debt on for future generations, including the young men on this program.

MARTIN: Pablo, what do you think?

Mr. TORRE: Well, you know, I think the irony in all this...

MARTIN: Young man on this program.

Mr. TORRE: You know, well, yeah. I think the irony is that, you know, this is one of the best things that's happened to the union movement in quite a long time. I mean I can't remember I mean well, due to my age partly, but maybe also for historical reasons the last time such a great swath of the population cared about labor and unions. I guess the MLB lockout might have been the last time people cared about labor. And it's really interesting because you have this demographic infusion of youth.

I mean now it's sort of a progressive obviously Democrat versus Republican thing, but honestly, I mean this is bringing attention to the union movement at large, private and public, in a way that I don't think people had anticipated. Honestly, I wonder about the 2012 election, obviously. You know, I think these people are so mobilized and so united over this that, you know, I don't even know how long Scott Walker is going to be around.

MARTIN: Well, you know, speaking of another high-profile labor dispute then, this might be a good time to talk about the NFL. And if you just joined us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop.

And this whole issue around former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson who, you know, sadly took his own life. And he sent text messages to his family before his death asking them to have you brain analyzed for something called CTE, which has been found in other football players who suffered multiple concussions and led to depression. And this is an interview with Duerson's ex-wife Alicia. Here's what she had to say.

Ms. ALICIA DUERSON: He told me he loved me very much and he was truly sorry and that he loved the kids. He thinks there was something wrong with his brain on the left side and for me to please get it to the NFL.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Wow.

MARTIN: Pablo, what about this?

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. I mean this is - obviously it's tragic, but this is especially not the circumstance that the NFL wanted to hear about when they heard about the passing of Dave Duerson. I mean it just, you know, not to be crude about it, but it's another body on the pile. It's another story that the NFL needs to recognize.

And the larger point of this for me is, you know, we're looking at the future of America's popular sport - most popular sport by far, it's not even close. And the way we've thought about football for so long is as one of the big three with baseball and basketball.

What's becoming clear to me and to a lot of people, and especially scientists who have been saying this for quite a while is that it's not a baseball or a basketball. What it is, it's closer to boxing. And we've seen what happened with boxing is an extreme decline once people realized how dangerous it was and extreme socioeconomic and racial divergence once parents realized how dangerous boxing was. When you look at the fog you wonder about it.

MARTIN: But the irony though is that this is coming these revelations are coming forward when the sport is at the height of popularity.

Mr. TORRE: Exactly.

MARTIN: I mean the last Super Bowl and the Super Bowl before that set records for viewership - for television viewership.

Mr. TORRE: Oh, it's mind-blowing. And I can tell you SI, I mean there's no question what readers want: they want football and they want more football then they want football. I mean it's not even close.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Do they want head injuries? I mean I think this...

Mr. TORRE: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...when you watch a football game, when you watch a football game what tunes the reason you tune in is to see the competition, the strategies, the plays, who outdoes what. This idea somehow that were old-school, that we want to see people butting heads and, you know, just, it's not a hockey game. It's, I don't go there for the fights. It's not a hockey game.

And I think that what's really scary about this frankly, is the fact, and you hit on it, you have little kids playing in Pop Warner and junior varsity and high school football and growing up in this culture without a serious discussion in this country about concussions and about, you know, how much padding is in the helmet and head injuries and all this stuff. And I think it's something that people have talked about and I've read about for some time.

But it is sort of to football what the steroid controversy is to baseball, in terms of this ugly little secret nobody wants to talk about but it's something that we're going to have to deal with. Those of us who love football and love watching football, we have to start thinking seriously about what's happening to people under the helmet.

MARTIN: Before we move on to one more thing I wanted to talk about, Arsalan, I just wanted to ask you, because you're also another sick football fan. I mean, yeah. Yeah.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, and I, you know, I grew up in Chicago and I watched Dave Duerson, you know, playing for the '85 Bears, one of the greatest teams in modern NFL history with, you know, Walter "Sweetness" Payton, Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, "The Fridge" and Mike Singletary and, you know, it was, you know, it was really tragic to hear about it. But, you know, I think that he left a very positive legacy on the field and hopefully, you know, his tragic passing will offer, you know, some much needed advancement in our collective conversation about the future of the NFL.

MARTIN: Does this change the way you think about the sport?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No. I mean I think that the whole, you know, I mean Pablo and I have talked about the head injury thing and the pads, you know...

Mr. TORRE: Yeah.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...with the helmet to helmet stuff, you know, the new Toyota commercials that have come out. I mean I think we're entering a new phase in our, you know, societal discourse about professional sports.

MARTIN: Jimi, what about you? I know that you're not like a huge fan, but what you think? Does it change the way you think about the sport?

Mr. IZRAEL: Absolutely, because my son is now getting into sports. My youngest son, he's really starting to get into certain kinds of sports and he wants to do what his dad does. His dad used to box and do martial arts, so he wants to get interested in Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu and I'm less concerned about his head injuries there than I would be if he...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, exactly.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...if he wanted to play football. But if he does want to play football, I mean I think I would dissuade him from that more than I would dissuade him from, you know, learning how to do a decent arm bar in Jiu-Jitsu.

MARTIN: OK. Before we let you go, big trade news, Pablo. Big trade news in the NBA this week.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, lots. There's lots of trade news.

MARTIN: Yeah, lots of trades. Pablo, break it down. Break it down.

Mr. TORRE: Well, all I can tell you is just generally that obviously Carmelo going to the Nicks, joining Amare Stoudemire. What we're seeing is the big markets taking control of the NBA. We've seen it in baseball, the gap between rich and poor. Now we're seeing the geographic advantage take - really take advantage of what they've got.

I mean big players now, it's so funny to think of sports when free agency didn't exist, now stars are saying we have control of our own destiny, we want to choose where we want to go. And they're going to the biggest, richest cities. And so you're going to see these big gangs rising up out of New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, L.A...

MARTIN: What you're talking about gangs? Who you calling a gang?

Mr. TORRE: So...

MARTIN: What's up with that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: Well, by that I mean...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Gangrene.

Mr. TORRE: ...we're getting identities with these cities. I mean these guys are joining up together, they're beating up on everybody else and they're taking control of the NBA. I mean this is the first steep.

MARTIN: Arsalan, final quick thought?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I got to two major trades. My Boston Celtics gave up our starting center, Kendrick Perkins, and Nate Robinson to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. Danny Ainge, if you're listening, come on, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And my heart...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Danny, if you're out there.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: My heart goes out to Baron Davis. You know, last week Boomdizzle was lobbying alley-oops from a Kia to Blake Griffin and now he's...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Out of his sunroof.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...crying in Cleveland, so poor Boomdizzle.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we're not trading any of you. I hope you...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Not yet, at least.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, man.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, until I join a gang.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is author of the book, "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Washington Post Writers Group and CNN.com. He was with us from San Diego. Pablo Torre, reporter for Sports Illustrated, with us from New York. Arsalan Iftikhar, civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. He was with us in Washington, D.C. studio.

Gentlemen, thank you.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. TORRE: Thanks.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more on Monday.

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