The political theater under way in Madison invites both Democrats and Republicans to imagine that something more significant has transpired there than is in fact the case: By curtailing the collective-bargaining powers of some government-employee unions, Wisconsin merely joins the ranks of Colorado and Maryland — not precisely hotbeds of right-wing extremism. In liberal Maryland, which extends collective-bargaining rights to some, but not all, government workers, this must all seem particularly overblown: The state is home to a great many employees of the federal government, many of whom belong to public-sector unions that do not enjoy the extortionate powers until now invested in Wisconsin’s union bosses.
Gov. Scott Walker and the sober Republicans in Wisconsin’s state legislature are celebrating a victory, to be sure, but it is in truth a modest one: Under the new law, government workers will vote annually on whether they wish to be represented by a union, and the state will not be compelled to extract union dues from employees’ paychecks on behalf of the unions. Health-care and pension benefits for government workers will be set by the people’s elected representatives outside of the union-dominated collective-bargaining process, and wage increases will be indexed to inflation. Government workers still will enjoy salary-and-benefit packages that in most cases exceed what those workers could hope to command in the private sector, along with such hard-to-price benefits as enhanced job security.
For this modest reform, Governor Walker has been compared to Adolf Hitler, and progressives have called for his assassination. For adopting collective-bargaining rules similar to those found in many other states and more generous than those found in some, the people of Wisconsin have seen their state capitol under the occupation of bongo-beating misfits while the necessary and essential business of state government ground to a halt, with Democrats fleeing the state in a cynical bid to prevent duly elected legislators from legislating.
Many of our states, and a great many of our municipalities, suffer from precarious finances. Wisconsin, for all of its shortcomings, has seen its fiscal affairs managed with relative prudence, and Governor Walker’s “budget repair” bill is an example of that: dealing with the state’s problems before the point of crisis has been reached, while the state still has adequate resources and options for enacting necessary reforms in an orderly and intelligent fashion. The bill has been called “extreme” and “draconian,” but is in fact the opposite of that: No state worker is set to lose his job, there will be no furloughs or salary cuts. The worst that government employees will endure is a requirement that they pay 12.6 percent of their own health-insurance premiums and 5.6 percent of their own pension contributions. And they all will receive something of value: a regularly scheduled vote about whether to be represented by their unions, which often serve no one’s interests but those of the union bosses themselves.
And that is the real source of the rage on the left: Mandatory union representation, empowered by mandatory collective bargaining and mandatory dues deductions enforced by the state, creates an enormous flow of cash for Democratic political candidates and their pet causes. From 1989 to the present, five of the ten biggest donors to American political campaigns have been labor unions, including public-sector unions such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The overwhelming majority of those donations go to Democrats. The union bosses and their Democratic patrons know that giving workers more of a choice about union representation will diminish that power and reduce that cash flow. That is what this is about, for all of the cheap talk about “civil rights” — as though federal employees in Washington were being treated like second-class citizens because their unions do not enjoy the same princely powers until now wielded by Wisconsin’s.
This is not the end of Wisconsin’s fiscal troubles, only the beginning of a solution. Other states, counties, and cities, many of them in far worse economic condition than Wisconsin, face similar difficult choices in their futures, and no doubt will endure similar political convulsions, if not more severe ones. The pure-hearted idealists on the left will not give in easily — not when there is a great deal of money at stake, along with raw political power and comfortable sinecures for those at the top of the public-sector foodchain. While we celebrate what has been won in Wisconsin, we must be mindful of the much more difficult work that remains to be done.