As Wisconsin flips its wig, there has been a great deal of dishonest, ill-informed, and indeed knavish commentary on the relationship between public-sector unions and the fiscal conditions of the states. The thrust of these unenlightening analyses has been that public-sector unions are not to blame for the dire fiscal situation facing Wisconsin and many other states. The general shape of the Left’s argument here has been that of a compound error with two distinct components: 1) the inability to distinguish between the short-term problems facing states as a result of the recent recession and their long-term fiscal problems; 2) the much more serious conflation of collective-bargaining rights with unions’ political power.
Public-sector unions are enormously important political players, including in those states where their collective-bargaining rights are limited or nonexistent. That fact makes nonsense out of arguments such as the one put forward by Joseph McCartin of The New Republic: “Contrary to [Gov. Scott] Walker’s assertion, there is no direct correlation between public-sector collective bargaining and yawning state budget deficits.”Collective bargaining is not the operative factor; Mr. McCartin is providing an answer to a meaningless question. Likewise, Dick Polman is entirely off track in making a related argument: “Yes, a lot of public unions have good wages and benefits. But blaming these unions for the states’ red ink is a serious overreach. North Carolina, Arizona, and Nevada currently have budget deficits far deeper than Wisconsin’s — and none of those states allow their public employees to bargain collectively.” These arguments ignore the fact that unions do a lot more than engage in collective bargaining, and that their most important and influential work is done not at the negotiating table, but on the campaign trail. Collective bargaining is not the only way, or even the main way, that public-sector unions shape public policy.
Nearly 90 percent of government employees in the United States are employed at the state and local level. A very large number of them, many millions, belong to public-sector unions. State and local bureaucrats are much more likely to be unionized than federal bureaucrats — more than twice as likely, in fact; 19 percent of federal workers are unionized, but 30 percent of state workers are, and 43 percent of local workers. These are very high levels of unionization across the board — only 8 percent of private-sector workers are union members — but much, much higher at the state and local level. That is significant because, contra Polman, McCartin, and the bulk of the Democratic commentariat, these unions do not influence public policy mainly through engaging in collective bargaining. They influence it by determining the outcome of elections.
And “determining the outcome” is no overstatement. Many union critics in the past few days have referenced Stanford professor Terry M. Moe’s fascinating paper “Political Control and the Power of the Agent,” published by the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization in 2005, citing a single extraordinary fact: In the elections Professor Moe studied, union support was as valuable as incumbency in determining winners. That fact is, in and of itself, sobering: Incumbency is generally the most powerful factor in elections — short of a major scandal or similar political catastrophe, incumbents most often are relatively secure in their reelections. The fact that union support turns out to be not only as powerful a factor but, in fact, a slightly more powerful factor in the most significant contests demands a reevaluation of our fundamental thinking about who is really in charge of our state and local governments. Professor Moe found that in the school-board races he researched, incumbency boosted a candidate’s reelection chances by 47 percent. Union support boosted the odds by 56 percent. The combination of union support and incumbency boosted the odds by 76 percent — an important factor, since many of those incumbents became incumbents on the strength of earlier union support, meaning that the unions are compounding the effectiveness of their electoral efforts over time, stocking the incumbent pipeline with their favored candidates.