Michael Kinsley defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth.” That definition would make E. J. Dionne’s column quite a gaffe, were he not a journalist. Dionne admits that unions organized today’s Wisconsin recall to punish Walker for holding them accountable to their members.
Publicly the unions have insisted that the recall is about Walker’s “assault” on their “collective bargaining rights.” Never mind that the notion of a “right” to control the government’s labor force is a new invention. The unions maintain the recall is about collective bargaining.
But many states have restricted collective bargaining in government without unions declaring a blood feud. Massachusetts reduced unions’ ability to bargain over municipal health benefits. New Jersey’s Democratic legislature reduced government-employee pension and health benefits. Rhode Island also reformed state pensions despite union protests. Why the vendetta against Walker in particular?
Because — as Dionne explains — Walker did more than reduce government compensation. He gave union members choices. As Dionne puts it, Walker “made it harder for these organizations to maintain themselves over time, notably by requiring an almost endless series of union elections.”
Before Walker, unions remained certified indefinitely. This meant that unions formed in the 1960s “represented” workplaces where no current employees had ever voted for them. Walker required unions to run for recertification annually. This forced unions to earn workers’ votes to remain their representatives. Government employees also once had to pay $500 to $1,000 a year in union dues or get fired. Walker made those dues voluntary.
These reforms gave government employees a choice about union membership. Lo and behold, many of them decided not to join. Government-union membership plummeted in Wisconsin after workers got a say in the matter. That has cost government unions tens of millions of dollars in lost dues.
Dionne objects that this will “undercut the labor movement altogether.” That is a weak argument. The government should not aim to strengthen (or weaken) “one of the Democratic Party’s main sources of organization.” The government should enact good policy and let the chips fall where they may.
Regular elections and voluntary dues hold unions accountable to workers. If unions cannot get the votes of a majority of employees, then they should not represent them either. Union members certainly think so: 83 percent of them believe unions should have to regularly run for re-election. Fully 80 percent agree that workers should not be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
— James Sherk is senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation.