Late on Friday, the leader of Wisconsin’s largest public-employee union offered Republican governor Scott Walker a deal: His members would start contributing to their own pensions and accept increased health-insurance premiums, as long as Walker withdrew his plan to weaken collective bargaining for government employees.
“We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state’s budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union. . . . We will not — I repeat we will not — be denied our rights to collectively bargain,” Beil said on February 18. Wisconsin was the first state in the U.S. to allow collective bargaining for public employees in 1959 (when, apparently, God deemed it a right.)
The protesters quickly picked up on Beil’s meme, and It’s not about the money! became a talking point among the teachers, students, firefighters, and bureaucrats lined up around Capitol Square. Walker, who needs to find $3.6 billion to close the state’s two-year budget deficit, had posited the issue as one of economics. The unions saw it as one of “rights.”
But to say these protests are merely about collective-bargaining rights is to say The Godfather is a movie about Italian food.
Since the early 1970s, public-sector unions have been a powerful political force in Wisconsin, as they are in many states. The unions collect dues from their members (up to $1,100 per member per year), which they then use to elect members sympathetic to their causes. In the last two elections, the state’s largest teachers’ union spent $3.6 million supporting their candidates.
Walker has attempted to change that framework, allowing government workers to opt out of paying union dues — which, he has said, he thinks may offset the increased health and pension contributions he’s asking of employees.
And it is this provision that has the unions most up in arms. They know that, given the option, many of their members would choose not to write out a check for union dues. This, in turn, would strangle their election spending, leaving them scrambling for funds and, consequently, influence.
But it’s not strictly about the dues. Unions have consistently used their clout to negotiate contract items that have no direct, quantifiable cost to taxpayers but end up benefiting their members financially.
For instance, in the mid-1970s, the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) agreed to begin paying health-care benefits even after employees retired. This was done in lieu of larger pay increases; it appeared not to have any immediate cost. Yet new accounting rules passed just two years ago have shown that MPS will soon have an unfunded liability of $4.9 billion — more than four times the district’s entire annual budget. If MPS were to make the annual required contribution to pay down the liability, it would eat up nearly 20 percent of their total budget — for teachers who no longer even teach.
Another non-fiscal item that has had a fiscal impact is a law passed years ago making it impermissible to use student test scores in determining teacher pay. President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, has decried this “firewall” and barred states with such laws from receiving federal “Race to the Top” funds.
Wisconsin scrambled to amend the law in order to be eligible for $254 million in new education funds. Yet the new law passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature only allows student test scores to be used to determine teacher pay if the unions agree to it. To date, Wisconsin still has not received any Race to the Top funds.
The list goes on. Wisconsin’s teacher-licensure program, which is controlled almost entirely by the unions, strictly limits the number of educators that can compete for public teaching jobs. Teacher tenure, often granted after only three years on the job, makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher. Through its mass opposition to private-school choice programs, the teachers’ union has thwarted competition, thereby protecting its members’ jobs — even in districts like MPS, which boasts some of the worst African-American reading and math scores in the nation.
None of these items immediately showed up on a ledger as a cost to taxpayers. Yet each one, through protecting government jobs and providing hidden benefits, provides large financial benefits to public-sector workers.
Collective bargaining and money are nearly synonyms. Union negotiating devoid of financial consideration would be akin to non-alcoholic whiskey: all the bitterness without the desired effect. In the end, 70,000 protesters didn’t show up on the Wisconsin Capitol grounds on Saturday to demand their right to use colored chalk in their classrooms.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.