Who won the battle of Wisconsin? Republican governor Scott Walker got a legislative victory. On the other hand, Democrats, with a wary eye on 2012 and noting the worrying drop in support for President Obama in union-heavy states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, claim to be delighted that Governor Walker has picked this fight. “Republicans have done organized labor a great favor by putting the movement back in [the] labor movement, creating a level of passion and activism for workers’ rights that hasn’t been seen in generations,” crowed Democratic strategist Mike Lux.
Maybe so. Though the three-week tantrum by union protesters in Madison (which escalated to harassment of Republican legislators by the Party of Civility), along with the flight of Democratic legislators to Illinois may well offend more Americans than it energizes.
Polling is equivocal. A national poll by Rasmussen found that 48 percent supported Gov. Walker while only 38 percent favored the unions. A highly significant 56 percent of independents sided with the governor. On the other hand, a CBS/New York Times poll found that 56 percent of those surveyed opposed reducing pay or benefits of public employees in order to balance state budgets, and 60 percent opposed weakening the bargaining rights of public employees.
Let’s stipulate that polls can suffer from tendentious wording. Nevertheless, the public’s response to the Madison imbroglio suggests that Republican budget cutters have not completely made their case.
Republicans may need to put greater emphasis on the difference between private- and public-sector unions. In a private-sector company, when unions negotiate with management, there is a limiting factor at work — the company must remain profitable or everyone is out of a job. In the case of public-sector unions, “management” consists of elected officials, and the city, state, or federal government is the employer. Profit or loss is irrelevant, so there is no limiting factor. If unions receive more and more generous pay and benefits, it’s the taxpayers who are on the hook, not “management.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt was as radical as Scott Walker. In 1937, he said “All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management.” Former AFL-CIO president George Meany agreed, saying “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
In the private sector, unions do not control management and vice versa. In the case of public employee unions, “management,” i.e. public officials, often receive generous contributions from the very unions with whom they are negotiating — permitting unions to choose “management” to form a cozy, if corrupt, circle. During the last election cycle, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) contributed $90 million to Democratic candidates. In 2006, then New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine addressed a rally of 10,000 public employees in Trenton, declaring “We will fight for a fair contract.” Corzine was supposed to be management. With whom was he fighting?
The answer, as even Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown are discovering is — other middle-class people, i.e. the taxpayers. The taxpayers are the ones left holding the bag when elected officials team up with public-sector unions. Middle-class taxpayers, only 65 percent of whom have access to retirement plans, are picking up the tab for the 90 percent of government employees who do. Nearly 70 percent of lower-wage government workers receive health benefits, compared with only 38 percent of private-sector workers.
Many state workers avail themselves of the option to retire in their early to mid 50s at nearly full pay. If they were New Jersey teachers, they can collect free health benefits for life.
The results are clear: New York has a 2012 budget gap of $9 billion; California’s is $20 billion; Illinois’s is $11 billion. The vast majority of middle-class taxpayers, whose pay and benefits are lower than those of the public-sector workers, must pay in higher taxes or reduced services.
Democratic governor Jerry Brown has asked California state workers for givebacks of 8 to 10 percent in salary, saying “We have no choice . . . California must return to fiscal responsibility and get our state on the road to economic recovery and job growth.”
Mike Lux: Before you celebrate, have a look at Sacramento.