Across the nation, public-sector unions realize the game is up, and they aren’t happy about it. They’re doing everything in their considerable power to stop newly elected governors and legislatures from doing what they were elected to do: bring state finances under control by revoking the union privileges that have strained state budgets for years. The question now is, “Who governs America?” If the unions win, the answer will no longer be “the people.”
In Wisconsin, the state Capitol is under siege by labor unions. Thousands turned out to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s emergency budget bill, which would require teachers to pay more toward their own pensions and limit collective bargaining. According to anecdotal reports, police advised workers in the Capitol to lock their doors after protesters marched through the halls yelling and banging drums. A sickout strike by teachers closed schools. Mr. Walker put the National Guard on alert in case the public-safety unions went on strike. Finally, all 14 Democratic senators fled the state to stop a vote on the bill.
Wisconsin is expecting a $3.6-billion deficit over the next two years. That’s a large part of the reason why the state’s voters ousted big-spending Democrats in the last election. With government spending under threat, the unions want to overturn the democratic process. Mr. Walker and other Republican candidates campaigned on lower taxes, less spending and curbing the power of government unions. The unions knew this was coming. Mr. Walker told the Associated Press the actions are “not a shock. … The shock would be if we didn’t go forward with this.”
The response from Wisconsin’s government unions is loud and clear: Democracy be damned! What good is the will of the people if it takes away union privileges?
Yes, privileges. Wisconsin public employees pay nothing into their pensions - try finding a bargain like that in the private sector. The proposed budget will require government employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pensions and pick up 12.6 percent of their health care costs. The amounts are roughly half of what private-sector workers pay.
The bill gives workers the right to say no to a union if they don’t want to join. State employees currently are required to pay union dues simply to keep their jobs. The bill also takes away the union privilege of automatically deducting money from workers’ paychecks. Unions are incensed because now workers will have a choice and will have to pay affirmatively for union representation.
It is important to note that the bill does not take away the right of workers to join a union. It does not take away their right to bargain collectively - although it does limit such bargaining to wages. It does not force Mr. Walker to lay off 6,000 state employees - the amount needed to fix the budget hole. It does not take away other civil-service protections. All it does is bring some fiscal sanity to state pension funding and give employees greater choice over whether to join a union.
Across the country, similar trouble is brewing. In Idaho, similar plans to curtail teachers unions’ collective-bargaining powers have led to threats and vandalism directed at the state’s schools superintendent. In Ohio, attempts to change the collective-bargaining agreements for police, firefighters and the highway patrol have led to clashes at the statehouse. In Tennessee, an attempt to restrict teachers’ collective bargaining likewise threatens to escalate.
In all these cases, the struggle pits newly elected representatives and executives against entrenched union power. The unions have considerable privileges dating back 40 years or more and are determined to hang onto them by any means necessary. They have powerful allies in Washington. President Obama, who once noted that “elections have consequences,” now likens those consequences to violence, saying, “Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions.” His campaign group, Organizing for America, boasts that it is “mobilizing on the ground in Wisconsin.”
The coming weeks will determine whether the people’s voice is heard above that of union bosses. Labor reform in Wisconsin today may prove to be as consequential as President Reagan’s actions against illegally striking air-traffic controllers. If so, we will all be better off and American democracy will once again have proved its resilience.
Iain Murray is vice president for strategy and F. Vincent Vernuccio is labor policy counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington.