Politics & Policy

Government Unions Lose

Walker’s victory is the Prop 13 of the 21st century.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s 53–46 percent victory over Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor, Tom Barrett, in Tuesday’s recall election is the Proposition 13 of the 21st century. In 1978, California’s famous property-tax-cut referendum ignited the supply-side tax-relief movement. Similarly, Walker’s win will encourage elected officials to demand that taxpayer-funded government employees earn realistic wages and pay their fair share for benefits. Likewise, Walker’s triumph should stiffen politicians’ spines so that they insist that government-union bosses live by the same rules as the rest of us.

Tuesday’s humiliating loss for the government workers’ unions is just the latest setback in their hard-fought but futile campaign to foil the reforms that Walker promised to implement if elected. After screaming themselves hoarse in Madison for weeks, the unions got serious and tried to remove a reform-friendly Wisconsin-supreme-court justice in order to overturn Walker’s collective-bargaining restrictions and other measures. The voters did not cooperate.

Strike one.

The government-union bosses tried to unseat nine state senators who supported Walker’s agenda. Again voters didn’t agree.

Strike two.

And, for months, government-employee unions pumped some $7.6 million (largely from mandatory dues), countless volunteer hours, and immeasurable amounts of prestige into sending Walker to the locker room. Once more, Wisconsinites refused to cooperate.

A swing and a miss, strike three!

(And, yes, Walker’s supporters spent some $17 million in voluntarily collected funds.)

Far from retiring him, Scott Walker’s union foes have catapulted him to national prominence. Veteran activist and direct-mail pioneer Richard A. Viguerie calls Walker “the conservative movement’s new leader.” As Viguerie wrote Wednesday:

In a blue state, Governor Walker has shown establishment Republicans, including Mitt Romney and the Capitol Hill Republicans, that a bold conservative agenda is a political winner. Taking on the public sector unions and winning the battle to roll back the size and cost of government have made Scott Walker the leader conservatives have been looking for, whether he wants the role or not.

Peter Hannaford, a long-time adviser to Ronald Reagan, notes on the American Spectator’s website that Californians on Tuesday also cried “Uncle!” at the government-workers’ unions and their statist enablers:

San Jose voters passed Measure B by 71-to-29 percent. In San Diego, they endorsed Proposition B by 67-to-33 percent. In recent years both cities had been forced to cut back on libraries, recreation centers, and fire and police services in the face of galloping pension liabilities. San Diego saw its annual contribution to pensions go from $43 million in 1999 to $231 [million] this year, soaking up 20 percent of the city’s budget. In San Jose, it went from $73 million in 2001 to $245 million this year — equal to 27 percent of the budget. . . . It began to look as if the taxpayers were working for their own employees.

Leaders who are inspired by Walker’s mix of principled policy and prize-winning politics should enact these proposals:

‐ Government workers should sacrifice, just as taxpayers have. In 2011, according to the U.S. Labor Department figures furnished by American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Andrew Biggs, private-sector employees in establishments of 100 or more typically cost employers $19.93 per hour. Among state and local government employees, the equivalent figure was $26.57 — one-third higher.

‐ Government workers should pay their fair share for health and pension benefits. On an hourly basis, private-sector employees’ benefits cost their companies $2.15. State and local government workers’ benefits cost taxpayers $4.72 per hour — 120 percent more. For retirement, the private-sector figure was $1.02 per hour. The state and local sum: $3.37 per hour — a 230 percent premium.

The figures also are staggering at the federal level. In 2009, according to USA Today, total wages and benefits among private-sector employees stood at $61,051. Among federal civilian employees: $123,049 — almost precisely double.

‐ Government workers should stop pension spiking. Their retirement payments often are based on their last two or three years of earnings. So, many work maximum overtime to send those amounts sky-high. Nonsense! Public pensions should be based on career-long compensation. Period.

‐ Government workers should be fired for inefficiency, incompetence, and criminality. Unless they rape or kill someone on camera, government employees are nearly impossible to fire. New York City’s government-school teachers repeatedly and credibly accused of child molestation remain on paid leave for years while administrators struggle to dismiss them. Enough! If private-sector workers can get sacked in seconds, so should those who serve taxpayers.

‐ Government workers should trade defined-benefit retirement plans, with artificially guaranteed returns, for defined-contribution plans, such as 401(k)s. True, private-sector employees face the potential gains and losses of the financial markets. But if those who pay taxes confront such risks in their own pensions, so should those who consume their taxes. 

‐ Government workers should be hired as individuals, not as members of union blocks, as are most of America’s private-sector employees, 93 percent of whom are non-union. (Among government workers, 37 percent are unionized.) There is no God-given or constitutional right to monopoly collective bargaining among government employees, who serve the people.

‐ Government workers’ retirement ages should rise to match those in the private sector, especially as life expectancy grows. As the Manhattan Institute’s PublicSectorInc.org website observes, some truly brave California cops and firefighters can retire after 20 years of service while earning 90 percent of their salaries. Average taxpayers in their 40s do not see such sweetheart deals, nor should average tax consumers.

‐ Government workers should pay union dues only if they wish, and only after unions bill them directly. Governor Walker stopped the state’s automatic dues collection on behalf of SEIU, AFSCME, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, and other unions. Private bosses do not collect rent for their employees’ landlords. They do not subtract auto dealers’ car payments from their staffers’ paychecks, nor do they deduct workers’ credit-card obligations from their wages and transfer them to Visa or American Express. So, why should unions grab dues money even before workers see their paychecks? Unions should bill members for their services, without their employers’ assistance, just as every other vendor does.

‐ Government workers should belong to unions only when they do so voluntarily. AFSCME’s Wisconsin chapter, for instance, has plunged from 62,818 members pre-Walker to 28,745 today. This strongly suggests that 34,073 dues payers, or 54.2 percent of AFSCME’s previous headcount, were hostages rather than members. End this conscription! Those who feel like guests can remain. Those who feel like captives can leave. This is called freedom. Government-union bosses should look into it.

As Governor Scott Walker shows the way, officials and candidates should follow in his path. Here again, step one is leadership.

— New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a contributor to National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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