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SCANLON: Writing on the wall for public unions

Bosses flail at fiscal restraint as dues-paying membership plummets

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2011

The American public at last has come to realize - and is demanding that our elected officials address - the terrible consequences of public-sector unions: Union health and pension plans are bankrupting state and local governments left and right.

Wisconsin, for example, faces a gaping $3.6 billion budget deficit over the next two years, necessitating new Gov. Scott Walker's current showdown with the Badger State's public-worker unions. Mr. Walker is not alone: Other governors, including New Jersey's Chris Christie, are at last confronting their states' public employees and telling them a harsh truth - the free ride is over. Unions must contribute more and ask for less. (See the April issue of the Capital Research Center's Labor Watch newsletter for a full account of Mr. Christie's union travails.)

Now eight Republican senators, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and co-sponsors Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Orrin G. Hatch and Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Jim Risch of Idaho, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and David Vitter of Louisiana, have taken the fray national, introducing right-to-work legislation in the U.S. Senate aimed at curbing union power by, among other things, forbidding unions to force workers to join - and pay dues - merely as a condition of employment.

Though about 22 states already have so-called right-to-work laws on the books, Mr. DeMint defended the need for a national measure, saying, "No American should be forced to join a union and pay dues to get a job in this country. ... many Americans are already struggling just to put food on the table, and they shouldn't have to fear losing their jobs or face discrimination if they don't want to join a union. Forced unionism shields unions from member accountability and has a detrimental effect on the economy."

Union bosses are in a panic over this wave of anti-union sentiment, and with good reason: Overall union membership in the United States has been in a free fall for years. In 1983, the nation's union membership rate, the percentage of workers who belonged to a union, was 20.1 percent. By 2010, that had plummeted to 11.9 percent, ". . . down from 12.3 percent a year earlier," according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This drastic reduction in dues-paying members has imperiled the wealth, power and political influence union leaders have long taken for granted. Right-to-work laws and measures reducing the collective-bargaining capacity of public employees (Iowa is the latest state to adopt the latter) would further erode the already etiolated power base of America's Big Labor bosses.

To be sure, the power of those bosses to mobilize mass unrest can still strike terror in the hearts of some lawmakers. In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and his allies have all but abandoned plans for a right-to-work law in the Hoosier State. Yet even this victory must be bittersweet for Indiana's public-sector unions: In 2005, Indiana state workers (though not teachers or municipal workers) lost their right to bargain collectively, and the consequences for union power were devastating: As the Wisconsin State Journal reports, "Prior to 2005, 16,408 Indiana state workers paid union dues out of about 25,000 who were eligible, or 66 percent, according to state and union figures. Today, just 1,409 out of 20,000 eligible workers, or 7 percent, pay dues. Also, raises are now merit-based, and overall total state employment is down about 6,000 workers to 27,400, mostly through attrition."

No wonder unions pulled out all the stops to thwart right-to-work in Indiana. But even in their success, one number bodes ill for unions there and everywhere else: Union leaders promised 25,000 protesters would descend upon the Indiana Statehouse on March 10 to decry other union-busting measures being considered by lawmakers.

Just 8,000 showed up.

Terrence Scanlon is president of the Capital Research Center and publisher of Labor Watch.

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