The Corner

Unions Versus Jobs in Wisconsin

Yesterday’s UnionWatch reminded us how odd it is that public and private unions routinely demonstrate “solidarity,” since they often have conflicting goals. An ongoing case in Wisconsin offers up a glaring example.

In late January of this year, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee released a study detailing the dire state of black-male employment in the nation’s largest cities. Milwaukee itself ranked third-to-last (behind only Detroit and Buffalo), with a black-male-employment rate of only 44.7 percent — a drop of 28.7 percent since 1970.

The news caused as much disruption in Milwaukee as a post-Thanksgiving flatulent uncle. The discomfort it wrought was widely ignored, and any discussion of the issue dissipated quickly. Elected officials in the city maintained their “no snitching” truce — if an embarrassing issue slides by without comment, no elected official can be held accountable for its existence.

At the same time, a bill was working its way through the Wisconsin legislature that would secure a new mine in Northern Wisconsin. Gogebic Taconite, a mining company based on the state’s northern edge, is seeking to set up an iron-ore mine in the sparsely populated north woods. The company is seeking to make a $1.5 billion investment, which would create thousands of union jobs not only in the northern part of the state, but in Milwaukee, which is home to several companies (P&H Mining Equipment, Caterpillar), that either supply or manufacture mining equipment. The former president of Bucyrus, a manufacturer bought by Caterpillar, says that the bill will help sustain 10,000 manufacturing jobs in the Milwaukee area. (Importantly, the bill doesn’t change any environmental regulations; it simply speeds up the timeline with which permits are approved.)

In the past, this is the type of bill that would have enjoyed bipartisan support. Democrats in the northern part of the state and in Milwaukee would see the economic benefit to their districts.

But this is Wisconsin in 2012.  And the public unions run the Democratic party.

In early 2011, the state erupted when Governor Scott Walker virtually eliminated public-sector collective bargaining and required higher pension and health-care contributions from state and local employees. Subsequently, public unions spent tens of millions of dollars trying to recall six Republican state senators that supported Walker’s plan. Walker himself will likely face a recall election in June or July of this year.

It is the expected Walker recall that has lined Democrats up against the mining bill. Walker can’t be seen as having any victories in the lead-up to his election, especially on the issue of job creation. In a poll released just today, Wisconsin residents support the mine by a 52 percent to 33 percent margin.

Yet public support has not shaken the naked union obeisance of announced Walker challenger Kathleen Falk, who last week announced she would veto any budget bill that did not fully restore public-sector collective bargaining. Falk was quickly endorsed by AFSCME and WEAC, the state’s largest teachers’ union. (Scientists are still searching for a planet on which such an overt promise in exchange for financial campaign support is legal.) Not surprisingly, Falk also opposes the mining bill.

It is true, the bill is being held up by one intransigent Republican state senator who is trying to leverage something out of being the deciding vote. (He also voted against Walker’s collective-bargaining bill.) But without the public unions putting the screws to Democrats to sully Walker’s name, this bill would pass with enough votes to let the occasional clueless Republican wander his own confused path.

In the meantime, good union manufacturing jobs in Milwaukee continue to vanish, and the economic plan for most northern Wisconsinites is to wait for the American Pickers guys to show up and buy a pair of rusty candlesticks buried in their garage. The national unions continue to oppose the mine, which would benefit their own members directly. 

“There’s not a lot of money in revenge,” says the six-fingered-man-hunting Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. The unemployed factory workers in Milwaukee are about to figure out what Montoya meant. While the public and private unions engage in a spectacular murder-suicide, the jobless will have plenty of time to wonder why their elected officials sacrificed their jobs for political payback.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and a co-author of the Campaign Manager Survey.


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