Facing Down the Unions
Tackling the public-employee unions may no longer be a political kamikaze mission.


Katrina Trinko

Over the past year, New Jersey governor Chris Christie has become a folk hero by striking back at greedy union demands, lambasting union leaders, and standing up for taxpayers. But this year, Christie is facing some competition, particularly from new governors Scott Walker (R., Wisc.) and John Kasich (R., Ohio).

Walker, a former county executive and state assembly member, has an ambitious list of reforms he would like to see enacted. To start with, he announced last Friday that he wants to eliminate most collective-bargaining rights for the majority of public employees, exempting only police, firefighters, and state troopers.

He also wants public employees to begin contributing 5.8 percent to their pension plans. (Currently, most of them contribute nothing to their plans.) On health care, he would like them to increase their contributions to 12.6 percent, up from 4 to 6 percent. Taken together, the two measures would result in what amounts to 8 percent pay cuts for state workers. The changes would also save the state — which is facing a budget shortfall of $137 million this fiscal year — $30 million over the next few months. More important, they would save $300 million over the following two fiscal years, when Wisconsin is facing a $3.6 billion deficit.

“We look at wage and benefit costs and we believe we’ve got to have as much flexibility as possible,” Walker said in an interview with National Review Online. “It’s not a matter of picking on public employees, who are doing a good job; it’s just a matter of saying this all has got to be put in balance. And when you compare that to what others are facing outside of government,” he adds, “it certainly is fair.”

“This isn’t going to be a bloodless move,” predicts Christian Schneider, a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.  He points out that the state has “a long history of public-employee-union activism.” While public employees can’t strike in Wisconsin, Schneider suspects they will find other ways — whether it’s teachers’ ceasing after-school activities, or correctional-facility employees’ refusing to work overtime — to “take their case to the public” and make any attempt at reform as politically toxic as possible.

There has already been significant backlash. Over 10,000 union supporters protested at the state capitol Tuesday, and the Wisconsin branch of the AFL-CIO is running radio and TV ads blasting the cuts.

And although both the state senate and the assembly have Republican majorities, passing this reform package could prove difficult. Republican senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald told the Associated Press earlier this month that changing the law governing collective bargaining would be a “walk through hell.” Right now, it looks as if the legislature is determined to press on with the reform and deal with the political consequences later. A vote could be held as early as today.

Whatever the political fallout from the collective-bargaining reforms, there may at least be wide public support for Walker’s pension-contribution push, a measure that he touted during his campaign. It proved wildly popular with voters: 76 percent of Wisconsin residents thought public employees “should contribute to their own pensions,” according to a poll commissioned by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute last summer.


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