March began as February ended in Wisconsin, with thousands of government workers staging sit-ins at the Wisconsin State Capitol building and more than a dozen Democratic state senators on the lam in Illinois, where runaway lawmakers from Indiana later fled.
Thousands of teachers have called in “sick” and shut down school districts so they can join the protests.
Wisconsin in 1959 became the first state to allow government unions to bargain collectively. Now under new Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin is leading a growing pushback against government worker collective bargaining and the high pay and perks that go with it.
The main issue in Wisconsin is “giving workers the right to say no to joining a union,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The main points of Walker’s plan are to make unionization optional. Now if you want be a teacher, you must be a member of the Wisconsin teachers union. Walker’s plan would give teachers the right to not join the union. They could get ahead on their own.
“Not only could they say no, they could say no after seeing how much money they’re giving to the union. They would need to affirmatively write a check for dues. Now dues are automatically taken out of the paychecks. Mandatory dues, not having the ability to say no to joining a union, go to the heart of union money and power, and individual rights.”
The protests are pushback against the pushback, with even President Obama joining in and declaring before the National Governors Association on Feb. 28, “I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon. We need to attract the best and the brightest to public service.”
Walker did not attend the NGA meeting.
One irony in Obama’s comments is that most federal workers have no collective bargaining rights for wages or benefits, and Walker’s bill would still allow Wisconsin’s government workers to bargain collectively for base pay.
The Wisconsin State Senate was scheduled to vote on a budget bill Feb. 17 that would eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employee unions and stop forced collection of union dues from paychecks, but 14 Democratic state senators fled the state to deny a quorum necessary for a vote to happen.
They have been moving around in Illinois, trying to keep their exact whereabouts unknown and out of reach of Wisconsin State Police, who had been dispatched to find the senators and bring them back.
Assembly Republicans and Democrats have stayed at work and on Feb. 25 passed a budget bill.
The bill would close an immediate budget deficit of $137 million for the fiscal year ending July 1. Wisconsin’s budget deficit for the 2012 fiscal year is projected to reach $3.6 billion.
Choice: Concessions or Layoffs
Under the budget passed by the Assembly, state workers would contribute 5.8 percent of their paycheck to their pensions and 12.6 percent of the average cost of their health insurance. Currently, state workers contribute about 5 percent of the cost of their health insurance, and most contribute nothing to their retirement plans. Walker’s office notes in a fact sheet that the 12.6 percent contribution to health insurance is about half the national average.
Firefighters and police are exempt.
Walker has said without the concessions 1,500 workers would have to be laid off by July, and 12,000 state and local employees over the next two years. Government workers now say they’ll accept the benefits concessions but will not budge on collective bargaining or dues collection.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, dozens of Democratic Party lawmakers decided to flee to Illinois to shut down the Indiana legislature rather than lose votes on education- and labor-related bills opposed by teachers and other government workers whose unions support Democrats.
But the pushback against the power of government unions by governors and lawmakers has become bipartisan, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) also proposing government worker layoffs and other measures to bring down the state’s personnel costs. Governors and lawmakers in several other states, including Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, also have introduced measures aimed at reining in the power and costs of government workers.
“The adjustments to union power underway in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and New Jersey are long overdue corrective actions needed to repair the damage done by of decades of giving public sector unions special privileges,” said David Denholm, president of the Public Service Research Foundation, which studies the impacts of unionism on government policy.
“Governor Walker had little choice but to insist on a reduction of the scope of collective bargaining as part of his budget reform package. Failure to do so would have insured that the problems just kept coming up over and over again,” Denholm said. “It would have been equally ridiculous for the Governor not to have included removal of the sanction for compulsory union membership or fees from the reforms. The unions and their friends in the legislature readily revealed their true concerns when they said that it was OK to take the money from the employees so long as they left collective bargaining alone. What the unions and their friends in the legislature really care about is maintaining the flow of union dues from the employees to the unions so that the union can support the politicians.”
Unlike Private-Sector Unions
“In a private company-union negotiation, the owners or managers of the company have an incentive to spend their money carefully. And even the union leaders
understand that an overly generous wage agreement could jeopardize the company’s survival,” said Cato Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz, who has long studied the growth of government. “But in government negotiations, the taxpayers don’t really have a representative at the table. It’s always easier for elected officials to give the organized interest group what it wants at the expense of the unorganized taxpayers. . . . So yes, it’s a good idea for Gov. Walker to try to reduce collective bargaining.”
Boaz added “It’s rare to see the citizens actually noticing the problem of union influence and pushing back, and I’m delighted to see it. I noticed a rising tide of concern last April, when Saturday Night Live, the zeitgeist-riding comedy show, had a truly harsh sketch about the ‘Public Employee of the Year Awards.’ It touched every element of popular resentment toward government workers: ‘people with government jobs are just like workers everywhere—except for the lifetime job security, guaranteed annual raises, early retirement on generous pensions, and full medical coverage with no deductibles, office visit fees, or copayments.’ . . . And I wrote then that when SNL gets on your case, ‘it’s time for unions to start worrying.'”
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.