All eyes are on Wisconsin this week where union members have taken to the streets by the tens of thousands to protest the Republican governor’s plan to strip them of their collective bargaining rights.
Faced with a $137 million shortfall this year and a $3.6 billion deficit for the upcoming two fiscal years, Governor Scott Walker’s budget would force public workers to contribute a greater part of their income to pension and health care savings—changes that, according to the governor, would put them more in line with the private sector. That measure is expected to save the state some $300 million over the next two years.
What has drawn fierce criticism from unions is Walker’s proposal to forbid them from bargaining collectively except for pay increases that match inflation. Public sector workers could still organize but unions would be prohibited from requiring workers to pay dues.
Governor Walker recalled his time as a county executive on Fox News Sunday to explain the move, noting that municipalities and local school districts can’t make cutbacks if unions stand in their way. “I want to give those local governments the tools they need to balance the budget now and in the future,” he said. “They can’t do that with the current collective bargaining laws in the state.”
Police, firefighters and state troopers would be exempt from the changes. Critics of the governor’s policy have pointed out that their unions contributed to his campaign whereas the teachers union, the most powerful in Wisconsin, did not.
Thousands of teachers have demonstrated in the capital this week, carrying signs that compared Walker to ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak while schools were forced to cancel classes. Democratic lawmakers fled the state to prevent the legislation from being enacted while national activists poured in to support the protests. Walker has characterized the opposition’s move as a “stunt” and urged them to “come home” to do their jobs.
Even as the protests are uncommon in their scale, Walker pointed out that more than 300,000 state and local workers weren’t there but “were doing their job; doing what they’re paid to do” instead. “We appreciate that.”
But most importantly, there are 5.5 million people in the state, taxpayers who, by and large, are sacrificing in their own jobs in the private sector paying much more than the 5.8 percent for pension and 12.6 percent for health care I’m asking for—in fact, in many cases, two or three times that amount.
In what is traditionally a very progressive state, Republicans won the governorship and majorities in both houses of the legislature during November’s elections. Walker promised to cut state employee wages and benefits during his campaign while repealing tax increases for high incomes and small businesses.
President Barack Obama joined the raging budget battle on Wednesday, suggesting that Walker had unleashed “an assault” on unions. “I think everybody’s got to make some adjustments,” he said, “but I think it’s also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens.”
Walker countered on Friday that his focus is on reducing spending. “It would be wise for the president and others in Washington to focus on balancing their budget, which they’re a long way from doing,” he told Fox News. On Sunday, he denied being a union buster. Workers “can continue to vote to certify that union and they can continue to voluntarily have those union dues and write the check out and give it to the union to make their case,” he said, “but they shouldn’t be forced to be a part of this if that’s not what they want to do.”
The conservative Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk has argued that stripping public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights is far from a radical proposal. “Up through the 1950s, unions widely agreed that collective bargaining had no place in government.” But starting with Wisconsin in 1959, states decided otherwise.
The influx of dues and members quickly changed the union movement’s tune, and collective bargaining in government is now widespread. As a result unions can now insist on laws that serve their interests—at the expense of the common good.
Walker agreed that unions have become too powerful in his state. “There’s no doubt about it,” he told Fox News Sunday. “People expect us to make tough decisions to make sure we don’t pass the buck on to our kids and our grandkids, and that’s exactly what we’re doing here in Wisconsin.”