Why Haven’t Public-Sector Unions Swarmed the White House?

by Christian Schneider

Two days into the ongoing Wisconsin imbroglio, President Obama waded into the morass, calling Gov. Scott Walker’s plan an “assault” on public-employee unions. Using violent action verbs to describe Walker’s plan seems to be the strategy. Walker is “attacking” unions, Walker is taking a meat cleaver to the children of Wisconsin — these sound much worse than “Scott Walker is asking for modest concessions from state and local employees in order to prevent them from being laid off.”

But, as it happens, Walker is merely asking for the same type of fiscal flexibility Obama enjoys. Federal employees do not have collective-bargaining rights with regard to benefits and wages. They pay into their own retirement plans and contribute much more to their health-insurance premiums. Earlier this year, Obama tried to unilaterally implement a two-year federal wage freeze — without any say from public sector unions. If Walker attempted to give federal employees the same deal he’s trying to give state and local employees, they would all storm the Capitol — in favor of his plan.

My wife is a federal employee. We pay around 30 percent of our health-insurance premium and she pays into a defined-contribution plan (the Thrift Savings Plan), as opposed to a defined-benefit plan, as Wisconsin government employees enjoy. The TSP contributes 1 percent of employee pay, matches additional employee contributions up to 3 percent of their pay, and matches 50 percent of employee contributions up to 5 percent of pay.

Let’s suppose my wife wanted to object to President Obama’s two-year wage freeze. If she flew to Washington, D.C., stood front of the White House dressed like Captain America and banged on a drum, she’d be all alone. She wouldn’t be joined by teachers, schoolchildren, and college students (although her trip would spark protests — in our house, as I would be forced to sit at home and eat leftover chicken enchiladas). Yet if Scott Walker tried to unilaterally impose something like that on state and local Wisconsin workers, we’d see much the same scene in Madison that we’re seeing now.

As the Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro noted last week, “If the Wisconsin law is an assault, federal employee unions have already been pummeled.”

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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