Politics & Policy

Facing Down the Unions

Tackling the public-employee unions may no longer be a political kamikaze mission.

Over the past year, New Jersey governor Chris Christie has become a folk hero by striking back at greedy union demands, lambasting union leaders, and standing up for taxpayers. But this year, Christie is facing some competition, particularly from new governors Scott Walker (R., Wisc.) and John Kasich (R., Ohio).

Walker, a former county executive and state assembly member, has an ambitious list of reforms he would like to see enacted. To start with, he announced last Friday that he wants to eliminate most collective-bargaining rights for the majority of public employees, exempting only police, firefighters, and state troopers.

#ad#He also wants public employees to begin contributing 5.8 percent to their pension plans. (Currently, most of them contribute nothing to their plans.) On health care, he would like them to increase their contributions to 12.6 percent, up from 4 to 6 percent. Taken together, the two measures would result in what amounts to 8 percent pay cuts for state workers. The changes would also save the state — which is facing a budget shortfall of $137 million this fiscal year — $30 million over the next few months. More important, they would save $300 million over the following two fiscal years, when Wisconsin is facing a $3.6 billion deficit.

“We look at wage and benefit costs and we believe we’ve got to have as much flexibility as possible,” Walker said in an interview with National Review Online. “It’s not a matter of picking on public employees, who are doing a good job; it’s just a matter of saying this all has got to be put in balance. And when you compare that to what others are facing outside of government,” he adds, “it certainly is fair.”

“This isn’t going to be a bloodless move,” predicts Christian Schneider, a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.  He points out that the state has “a long history of public-employee-union activism.” While public employees can’t strike in Wisconsin, Schneider suspects they will find other ways — whether it’s teachers’ ceasing after-school activities, or correctional-facility employees’ refusing to work overtime — to “take their case to the public” and make any attempt at reform as politically toxic as possible.

There has already been significant backlash. Over 10,000 union supporters protested at the state capitol Tuesday, and the Wisconsin branch of the AFL-CIO is running radio and TV ads blasting the cuts.

And although both the state senate and the assembly have Republican majorities, passing this reform package could prove difficult. Republican senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald told the Associated Press earlier this month that changing the law governing collective bargaining would be a “walk through hell.” Right now, it looks as if the legislature is determined to press on with the reform and deal with the political consequences later. A vote could be held as early as today.

Whatever the political fallout from the collective-bargaining reforms, there may at least be wide public support for Walker’s pension-contribution push, a measure that he touted during his campaign. It proved wildly popular with voters: 76 percent of Wisconsin residents thought public employees “should contribute to their own pensions,” according to a poll commissioned by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute last summer.

#page#Walker has also already won one important battle. In a letter in November, he asked outgoing Democratic governor Jim Doyle to refrain from finalizing contracts with state union employees. The governor nonetheless continued to negotiate the contracts, and when he finalized them, the assembly pushed ahead, even pulling one Democratic assemblyman out of jail (where he was serving a 60-day sentence for drunk driving) for a day so that he could cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the contracts. But in a surprise move, Democratic senate majority leader Russ Decker voted against the contracts. Outraged Democrats stripped Decker of his leadership position that same day, but it didn’t matter: The vote was a tie, and the contracts were not official.

#ad#Walker is hoping that a civil approach toward union members will help defuse tensions. Unlike Christie, whose confrontational remarks have won him a devoted YouTube following, Walker sees politeness as a crucial part of his strategy: “I’ve bent over backwards,” he says, “to make it clear that the proposed reforms in no way reflect on my opinion of our state employees, who I think overwhelmingly are good, hardworking, decent employees.”

Over in Ohio, Kasich is also looking at a series of aggressive steps. The former congressman and Fox News host is considering barring public-school teachers from striking, rescinding an executive order issued by his predecessor that unionized home health-care workers and child-care employees, and banning binding arbitration.

“I don’t know if you all know what binding arbitration is,” Kasich said in a speech late last year. “When there’s a labor dispute, they bring somebody in from Kokomo, Indiana. He comes into Ohio. He imposes a settlement on our cities. He goes back to Kokomo — and we pay the bill.”

Certainly Ohio faces a problem with overpaid government workers. According to a July report by the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, an Ohio think tank, the median salary for state-government employees ($36,858) is 24.6 percent higher than the median salary ($29,586) for employees in the private sector. It should come as no surprise, then, that half of Ohio voters “think government leaders should first reduce government worker compensation to eliminate the $8 billion state budget deficit,” according to a July poll commissioned by the Buckeye Institute.

But the institute’s Matt Mayer also thinks that Kasich needs to put abolishing collective bargaining on the table. He points out that only about 14 percent of all contracts over the last eleven years have involved strikes or binding arbitration. “Even if you did eliminate those provisions,” he says, “they’ve had such little impact on the cost curve of government contracts. The vast majority — 86 percent — are due to the existence of collective bargaining.”

Republican state senator Shannon Jones introduced legislation last week that would end collective bargaining for state employees. “The governor is certainly supportive of the principles in Senate Bill 5,” says Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for Kasich. “In general, he’s supportive of limiting the scope of collective bargaining, and bringing back some balance between the taxpayers and the public employees.”

Jones’s bill has predictably angered the unions, with hundreds of union supporters protesting at the Ohio Statehouse Tuesday. Kasich, too, has already come under fire from the unions. “They’ve attacked the governor kind of non-stop since he walked in,” says Mayer. “We know that they’re going to mobilize the teachers, the cops, the firefighters, all the workers in each district of the house and senate to put even greater pressure on them on these issues.”

Both Walker and Kasich have plenty of work to do — and legislative battles to win — before they can claim the Christie mantle. But if they are able to stand firm, and not buckle under pressure from the unions, there will be three governors next year disproving the conventional wisdom that tackling the unions is a political kamikaze mission.

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO staff reporter.

Katrina Trinko — Katrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...

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