Politics & Policy

Walker’s Union Reforms Have Helped, Not Hurt, Wisconsinites

(Whitney Curtis/Getty)

Wisconsin’s recent primary election gave Democrats another opportunity to take political shots at Governor Scott Walker’s 2011 signature collective-bargaining reform law, Act 10. Curbing the power of the public-sector unions had damaged the state, according to Senator Bernie Sanders. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton declared that weakening collective bargaining was “making it more difficult for families.”

This “analysis” of Walker’s reforms might play well at a political rally, but it ignores the evidence on the ground from the last five years.

It all began on February 11, 2011, when Governor Walker declared that the state was broke. Years of liberal tax-and-spend policies had left the newly elected Walker and Republican-controlled legislature with a massive, projected $3.6 billion budget deficit. Other states chose to fix their deficits with tax increases or cuts to public services, but both were bad options for the Badger State, already hemorrhaging jobs and drowning in taxes.

Instead, Walker curbed state aid to local governments and, in return, gave local governments the flexibility to control their costs. Walker’s most significant reform was the elimination of collective bargaining between local governments and their public employees’ unions. Mayors, school superintendents, and county officials would no longer be forced to accept union agreements. They finally would be able to balance budgets and reform their governments to better serve the people they represent.

After protests that brought more than 100,000 people to the capitol grounds in Madison, the bill (known as Act 10) was signed into law on March 11, 2011.

Opponents claimed that Act 10 would decimate workers’ rights. But the sky has clearly not fallen on public employees. Pension benefits for Wisconsin public employees have remained about 4.5 times more valuable than those at private-sector levels.

Wisconsinites have saved more than $5.24 billion as a result of Act 10, or $2,291 per household.

Wisconsin taxpayers are seeing a clear benefit as well. To date, they have saved more than $5.24 billion as a result of Act 10, according to a study by the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy. This works out to about $2,291 per household in Wisconsin. It includes more than $3.36 billion saved by simply having state employees contribute a reasonable amount to their retirement, and $404.8 million more revenue for local governments thanks to small reforms such as competitively bidding out their employees’ health-insurance plans.

Although Act 10 is a boon to taxpayers, a new report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty finds additional benefits for the state’s children at public schools. Without having to go to the public unions for approval on every single change to the teacher contract, school-district superintendents are able to implement better teaching methods, pay-for-performance plans, or enact administrative changes. Workplace rules and guidelines are no longer dictated in union-supported collective-bargaining agreements; instead, they are found in teacher handbooks, written by superintendents and elected school boards. 

In 2011, Oconomowoc School District opted to bridge a budget deficit by reducing teacher positions according to qualifications, rather than seniority. Currently employed teachers were paid an extra $14,000 to teach a fourth class. Similarly, West Bend School District raised the teacher retirement age instead of cutting classes, and it also revamped its health-care plan.

For their part, teachers are freer than ever to move from one district to another, unencumbered by rigid union contracts that stifled the teacher labor market. School-district officials can compete for the best teachers by paying them for their talents. At Cedarburg School District, for instance, teachers are rewarded by student-achievement metrics and by evaluations from the administration. Beloit School District gives bonuses to teachers if their students hit certain thresholds in standardized testing.

As it turns out, many teachers decided they wanted nothing to do with their union. Act 10 gives teachers the right to vote on union recertification and to decide not to join the union at all. Since 2011, the number of public-sector unions seeking recertification declined from 408 to 305. Individual membership in unions has also plummeted; the membership of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state’s largest teachers’ union, declined by more than 50 percent.

Wisconsin voters know what Clinton and Sanders don’t: Act 10 is working in Wisconsin and will keep paying dividends in the Badger State for years to come. Democrats and the labor movement can continue to play politics with Act 10, but in doing so, they risk ignoring the real, significant changes that are happening to school districts and local governments.


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