What Does Scott Walker Have Against Public-Employee Unions?

by Christian Schneider

For this month’s edition of the Wisconsin Interest Magazine, I’ve written a lengthy piece that takes a historical look at why Gov. Scott Walker wants to scale back public-sector collective bargaining so dramatically. It also notes the stunning similarities between enactment of the nation’s first state-government collective bargaining in 1959 and Walker’s attempts to significantly weaken it in 2011.

By now, the political lore is familiar: A major political party, cast aside by Wisconsin voters due to a lengthy recession, comes roaring back, winning a number of major state offices.

The 43-year-old new governor, carrying out a mandate he believes the voters have granted him, boldly begins restructuring the state’s tax system. His reform package contains a major change in the way state and local governments bargain with their employees, leading to charges that the governor is paying back his campaign contributors.

Only the year wasn’t 2011 — it was 1959, and Gov. Gaylord Nelson had just resurrected the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Certain of his path, Nelson embarked on an ambitious agenda that included introduction of a withholding tax, which brought hundreds of protesters to the Capitol. Nelson also signed the nation’s first public-sector collective bargaining law — the same law that 52 years later Gov. Scott Walker targeted for fundamental revision.

Two different governors, two different parties, and two different positions.

Ironically, their assertive gubernatorial actions may produce the same disruptive outcome. By empowering the unions, Nelson’s legislation led to public-sector strikes and work stoppages. By disempowering the unions, Walker’s actions might lead to public-sector strikes and work stoppages.

In Walker’s case, union members reluctantly agreed to his pension and health-care demands, but have fought desperately to preserve their leverage in negotiating contracts. That raises the basic question of the Madison showdown: Why is Scott Walker so afraid of collective bargaining?

The answer can be found in the rise of the state’s teachers unions.

If you’re running short on time, then just sneak a peek at this graph I put together that demonstrates the growth in per-pupil spending in Wisconsin versus inflation:

It’s easy to see where teachers’ unions came in to being, in the early 1970s, where the lines begin to split drastically. And yet the teachers will still contend their opposition isn’t about the money.

Read the whole piece here.

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

The Corner

The one and only.