When the Wisconsin General Assembly voted to pass Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill, the Democratic legislators made themselves indistinguishable from the protestors surrounding the assembly floor.
They wore the same pro-union orange T-shirts. They behaved in the same sophomoric way, breaking out in a noisy, finger-pointing demonstration. They chanted the same ubiquitous word: “Shame!” They might as well have brought guitars onto the floor for a Woody Guthrie sing-along and touted “Walker = Hitler” signs.
In Wisconsin, it’s less that Democrats act to protect a special interest than that they belong to a special interest. A complete identification has long existed among state government, the public-sector unions, and the Democratic party. By seeking to break up this powerful, self-dealing nexus, Walker is “assaulting,” in President Barack Obama’s formulation, a partisan political machine dependent on the state for its functioning.
The fight in Wisconsin has focused on collective-bargaining rights, but that is not the main event. As Daniel DiSalvo of the City College of New York-CUNY notes in a Weekly Standard article, 24 states either don’t allow collective bargaining for public workers, or permit it for only a segment of workers. Even if Walker prevails, Wisconsin will allow more wide-ranging collective bargaining than these states.
Not to mention the federal government. Obama may lecture Walker about union rights, but he can go straight to Congress with a highly political proposal to freeze the pay of federal workers because they can’t collectively bargain for wages or benefits.
No, the most important measure at stake in Wisconsin is the governor’s proposal for the state to stop deducting union dues from the paychecks of state workers. This practice essentially wields the taxing power of the government on behalf of the institutional interests of the unions. It makes the government an arm of the public-sector unions. It is a priceless favor.
Wisconsin doesn’t collect dues for Elks lodges or the NRA. What makes these organizations different from public-sector unions is that people freely choose to join them and freely choose to pay their dues. They are truly voluntary organizations that don’t rely on the power of the state for their well-being. Walker wants to give members of public-sector unions a measure of this same autonomy.
Perhaps some of these members aren’t liberal Democrats, so they don’t want to pay dues — roughly $1,000 annually in the case of teachers — which will overwhelmingly go to funding and organizing for Democratic candidates. Perhaps some of them, regardless of their politics, want to spend that money on their families or other pressing needs. Walker will allow them to exercise a choice now closed to them. In most of 21st-century America, that surely sounds like common sense; for the unions, it sounds like a dire threat.
When Indiana governor Mitch Daniels ended collective bargaining and the automatic collection of dues in 2005, the number of members paying dues plummeted by roughly 90 percent. In 2007, New York City’s Transit Authority briefly stopped automatically collecting dues for the Transport Workers Union, and dues fell off by more than a third. Without these dues, the ability of public-sector unions to influence elections — what they care about most — drastically diminishes.
This is why Wisconsin Senate Democrats preferred to flee the state rather than stay and vote on a proposal that would curtail their fundraising and organizational base. They can dress up their opposition in the rhetoric of workers’ “rights,” but even if all collective bargaining were stripped from all Wisconsin public workers, they’d still have extensive civil-service protections. For Democrats, the issue is whether they can continue to rely on state government to grease an essential cog in their political machine.
Public-sector unions are a creature of government, and the Democrats are the party of government. The two of them have identical interests and worldviews, and both want to leverage government to swell their campaign coffers. How to characterize this? The word “shame” comes to mind.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.