After 21 days of frustration, Republicans in Wisconsin decided to play hardball. Last night GOP state senators outflanked Democrats who have been AWOL for three weeks and passed a bill rescinding collective bargaining rights for many government workers. The howls from onlookers doubtless presage massive protests to come. Already there is a movement afoot to recall several legislators and there is also talk of legal challenges.
Given that many states face massive budget deficits and crippling union contracts, it is crucial that the Wisconsin pushback to government workers succeed. Consequently, Governor Scott Walker and his colleagues in the legislature have a big job in front of them – explaining to the citizens of a liberal pro-union state why it was essential to weaken labor’s grip.
Governor Walker took good first step by writing an op-ed for today’s Wall Street Journal. (I do wonder why it took him so long.) In it, he tells the story of an award-winning teacher laid off because of seniority rules adopted via collective bargaining. For most Americans, this so-called “last in first out” firing is anathema. It can result in school districts losing some of their best teachers, and protection of those less competent.
The governor’s website details other counterproductive outcomes from collective bargaining. For instance, Green Bay School District’s Emeritus program allows retired teachers to receive a full-year’s salary for working a mere thirty days over a three-year period. In Milwaukee, teachers are given two pensions – not one -- and in Madison the Emeritus program pays teachers nearly $10,000 per year (in addition to their pensions) for no work whatsoever.
These examples bring home how extreme some union contracts have become. Walker’s office also describes some of the more idiotic concessions won by labor, such as requirements that local union meeting sites comply with hosts of conditions, including what kinds of chairs and footrests are made available.
While data points like these are valuable (and the stupider the better), Walker should also remind voters repeatedly of the following:
• Federal employees do not have collective bargaining rights (and they seem to prosper nonetheless).
• State employees in states like Indiana do not have collective bargaining rights and have not been penalized as a result.
• The specific requests that workers in Wisconsin contribute to their healthcare and pension costs are not out of line with federal or other state workers, but are in fact much more generous than private sector norms.
While arguing his case, the governor will also have to fend off charges from the left that his determination to reduce union rights comes as a complete surprise. Since he served as Milwaukee Country Executive for eight years, during which time he cut the public sector workforce by 20%, and since he campaigned on a pledge of “taking our government back”, his quest to curb budget-busting union contracts is no shock. Because he was able to cut county debt, improve its credit rating and hold the line on taxes, Walker was reelected three times – with 60% of the vote in 2008 even as Barrack Obama carried the county with two-thirds of the vote. Wisconsin voters knew what they were getting.
Unhappily for Walker, his move to rescind collective bargaining rights comes at a pivotal moment for Big Labor. Sensing increasing public unease with ever-higher salaries and benefits paid to government employees, which are strikingly out of step with private sector pain, union leaders are scared to death. They have seized on the proposals in Wisconsin as a rallying point, and have successfully focused the country on what they have portrayed as a profound attack on unalienable rights.
What is undeniable is that Wisconsin needs strong measures to plug its financial hole. The state has a two-year projected budget deficit of $3.5 billion. Since so much of state spending goes to wages and benefits, these costs need to be curtailed. Like their colleagues in Washington, Democrats in Wisconsin are in denial.
So are the unions. Though the unions promise compromise, negotiations across the state suggest otherwise. The city of Milwaukee wants firefighters in that city to contribute to their health and pension benefits; instead, the union is demanding even more generous benefits and more say over hiring. Worse, emails released from the office of Madison’s mayor to Democrats in the legislature show him racing to lock in contract gains for local unions before the state changes take effect. Ultimately the mayor called an emergency session to make sure unions in that city would receive 2% and 3% annual pay hikes, despite the city’s fiscal woes.
Such union favoritism from an elected official illustrates why collective bargaining for government workers has been controversial from the start. George Meany, former head of the AFL-CIO, said in 1955, “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” He’s right. Elected officials who receive union money – as all but one of Wisconsin’s Democrat state senators have done (the outlier has taken no contributions) – are not in a position to “bargain” at arms-length with public unions. Ironically, it was in the state of Wisconsin that public workers first won the right to such negotiations – in 1959.
The drama in Wisconsin is not over. There is some question about the legality of the vote held last night, and a budget battle looms. In the coming weeks, the governor and his Republican colleagues will have to convince voters that they are trying to level the playing field -- not upend it --in the best interest of the state. With so much at stake, Big Labor will not give in easily.