Governors Begin Battle with Public-Sector Unions

Published January 23, 2011

Facing skyrocketing budget deficits, governors around the nation are readying themselves for a fight with public-sector unions as they look for ways to rein in spending.

In many states, nothing is being left off the table, including ending collective bargaining, banning the right to strike, and requiring state employees to shoulder a portion (or a larger portion) of their pensions and healthcare costs.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, both Republicans, are beginning their first terms after running for office on a platform of ending what they see as the unions dictating public policy. Both men have reason for optimism because the GOP has complete control of the legislature in both states.

Kasich Talks Tough
In a speech prior to taking office, Kasich said, “If they [state employees] want to strike, they should be fired. They’ve got good jobs; they’ve got high pay; they get good benefits, a great retirement. What are they striking for?”

Kasich said he favors banning public school teachers from striking, and during the campaign he called for an end to Ohio’s 27-year old collective bargaining law.

“There are going to be concessions in every facet of government. Everyone needs to be contributing,” said Rob Nichols, a spokesman for the governor.
However, some people say Kasich is backtracking on his campaign promises.

Matt Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute, a Columbus-based free-market think tank, said although repeal of collective bargaining is still on the table, Kasich lately has been talking more about reform.

Wants More
Mayer argues Kasich should lead with the complete repeal of collective bargaining and then negotiate from there. He says Kasich and the Republican legislature merely want to “nibble around the edges.” He added, “Taxpayers are always getting shortchanged.”
Mayer also says he’s disappointed there has been no talk of moving current or future state employees away from pensions and to 401Ks as Ohio grapples with a budget deficit of $8 billion.

He said there is a narrow window of opportunity for meaningful reforms to be put into place, and that if it doesn’t happen this year, it is unlikely to happen in the future.
Walker Surprises
In Wisconsin, Walker is confronting a $3 billion budget deficit, and he has warned state employees they could see their collective bargaining rights in jeopardy if they do not agree to greater salary concessions.
Speaking before the Milwaukee Press Club in December, Walker said, “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and the taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.” He added, “We are going to look at every legal means we have to try to put that balance back on the side of the taxpayer.”

Currently, state employees do not contribute to their pension; Walker is proposing they begin contributing 5 percent. He also says he wants to increase the amount they pay for healthcare costs, from 4 to 6 percent to 12 percent.
In his first week in office, Walker announced plans to partially privatize the 150-employee Department of Commerce and told current unionized employees they would need to reapply if they wished to continue working there.
“He’s taken an incredible jump out of the gate, really surprising people before he was governor with some bold and cheeky moves,” Edgewood College political science professor Steve Davis told the Rapids-Tribune.

Daniels Proposes More Reforms
When Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) took office in 2005, one of his first acts was signing an executive order abolishing collective bargaining for state employees.
With the Republicans winning control of the state House and increasing their majority in the state Senate last November, Daniels moved to take reforms one step farther. He proposes establishing merit pay for public school teachers and restricting collective bargaining.

“We must free our school leaders from all the handcuffs that reduce their ability to meet the higher expectations that we now have for student achievement,” he said in his State of the State address.

Christie Stands Firm
Since taking office in 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has had to grapple with closing a $10 billion budget deficit. He has proposed a one-year salary freeze for state employees and calls for them to contribute 1.5 percent of their salary toward health insurance.

Those proposals haven’t won him any friends among the unions. At a town hall meeting last summer, a teacher took issue with him, and their testy exchange became a YouTube sensation.
“You’re not compensating me for my education, and you’re not compensating me for my experience,” she said.

 “You know what? You don’t have to do it. Teachers go into it knowing what the pay scale is,” Christie told her as the audience applauded.

Abolishing teacher tenure is another goal Christie has expressed. In his State of the State address, Christie declared, “Teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure to perform.”

As the legislative sessions heat up, these governors appear more willing than their predecessors to take on the unions in an effort to put state budgets back in the black.

Nick Baker ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.