BILLINGSLEY: The Wisconsinonsense Award

Backers of militant unions vie for clueless comment prize

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The Oscars may be over but the prize has yet to go out for the lamest statement regarding the battle between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and government-employee unions. The competition is fierce, with filmmaker Michael Moore a leading contender.

Mr. Moore sees the government-union protesters as representing “the working people of the United States of America.” Trouble is, union members are not the same as the working class - far from it.

Only 11.9 percent of all wage and salary workers are members of unions, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In other words, 88.1 percent of American wage and salary workers - the vast majority - are not members of unions. The percentage is also down from 12.3 percent the previous year, a decline of 612,000 workers.

Only 6.9 percent of workers in the private sector are union members, according to the BLS, down from 7.65 percent. In other words, 93.1 percent of private-sector workers - nearly all of them - are not union members. That is a stark contrast from the public sector.

With government employees, 36.2 percent are union members, down from 37.4 percent the previous year. So even in the public sector, a full 63.8 percent of workers, nearly two-thirds are not union members. Still, as the BLS puts it, the union membership rate in the public sector is “substantially higher” than the private sector.

The highest union membership rate, 42.3 percent, is among local-government workers such as teachers, police and firefighters, according to the BLS. That figure is also down from 43.3 percent the previous year. In other words, 57.7 percent of local government employees, a majority of more than half, are not union members.

“The workers,” “the working class” or even “labor,” does not mean unions - government or otherwise. Also ludicrous is the attempt to portray government-employee unions as downtrodden and oppressed. In truth, they are pampered ruling-class militants.

Other contenders for the Wisconsin award include E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, who imputes this argument to critics of government unions: Things are bad in the private sector, therefore, they should also be bad in the public sector. So it’s all a matter of resentment and envy, and unfunded liabilities have nothing to do with it. Wisconsin does, in fact, face a deficit of $3.6 billion.

Despite these efforts, the prize should go to The Economist, whose Feb. 26 “Showdown in Madison” editorial chided Mr. Walker for trying to end collective bargaining for government employees. “If the public sector is to work more like the private sector,” the esteemed British journal said, “workers should have the same rights.”

The private sector produces goods and services that people may choose to purchase in the marketplace. In Wisconsin, for example, the private sector produces Harley Davidson motorcycles. When a government tries to produce consumer goods, the people get the Trabant (made in East Germany) or Lada (made in the USSR).

What government is supposed to do is uphold the rule of law and maintain a free and open marketplace, not a closed shop. If The Economist means that the public sector should work more efficiently, collective bargaining by government-employee unions has little to contribute.

If anything, it only institutionalizes inefficiency and widens the gap between the heavily unionized government ruling class and the mostly nonunion working class. Wisconsin’s crisis confirms that, contrary to The Economist, collective bargaining is unsuitable for the public sector at all levels.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director at the Pacific Research Institute.

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