Let no one be confused, the stakes in Wisconsin are high and the Badger state could turn into the crucial battle ground between progressivism and the new Tea Party majority in the country. Issues as important as public sector compensation, bulging state deficits, union power, federalism, education, federal entitlements as well as others are being fought over. That Wisconsin is the birthplace of American progressivism with a new conservative governor, new conservative majorities in both chambers, a new conservative U.S. senator and the bright new conservative chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, has made it ground zero for the left.
President Barack Obama has federalized the issue, throwing the full weight of the White House, the Democratic National Committee, and his own Organizing for America operation behind government unions, with the assistance of the SEIU and AFSCME unions. This is a major new test for the new governor, Scott Walker. If conservatives lose in Wisconsin, reform might be stifled elsewhere. If they can win, progressivism is in real trouble.
On the ground of course, it means that the Madison Metropolitan School District will not be educating any children today. For the third day in a row this week, the union members of Madison Teachers, Inc., will stage a “sick out” today to protest Governor Scott Walker’s (R) new budget, which would overcome a $137 million budget deficit this year and a projected $3.6 billion deficit over the next two years. Stacy Billings, a parent of two Madison students, told the Wisconsin State Journal that she supports unions and opposes Walker’s proposal but is against a teacher protest during school hours: “That’s not acceptable to me. My tax dollars pay for the teachers to teach and not to protest.”
What Billings does not understand, but is about to learn, is that like all government unions, Madison Teachers, Inc., does not care about teaching her children. Former American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker put it bluntly: “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” That is what this fight in Wisconsin, and across the country, is really about: money. And not money for government employees—money for government unions. The government unions themselves are admitting this every day the fight drags on.
Yesterday, Wisconsin state Senate Democrats brought the body to a halt when they fled the state to prevent the three-fifths quorum requirement needed for debate on legislation to continue. Governor Walker’s budget helps end Wisconsin’s budget deficit by requiring government workers to pay at least 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums and contribute 5.8 percent to their pensions. Even with these modestly higher costs, Wisconsin government employees would still enjoy benefits far more generous than those offered in the private sector. But that’s actually irrelevant. Remember, this fight is not about government employee pay. It is about preserving the direct pipeline that government unions have to our tax dollars. Don’t believe it? Just ask Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell: “This is not about protecting our pay and our benefits. It is about protecting our right to collectively bargain.”
On Thursday, the President told a Wisconsin television station, “I haven’t followed exactly whats happening with the Wisconsin budget … 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.”
President Obama is wrong: Denying government unions the power of collective bargaining is not an assault on all unions. Previous Democratic Presidents understood this fact. No less a progressive icon than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote in 1937: “All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. … The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.”
This is why private-sector unions are regulated by the federal National Labor Relations Act but government unions are regulated by the states. Wisconsin is actually the birthplace of collective bargaining power for government unions, granting them the privilege in 1959, but many states have always operated, and still do, just fine without them. Virginia, for example, gives no collective bargaining power to government unions, but according to the Pew Center on the States, it still somehow manages to be one of the best managed states in the country.
What is really at stake in Wisconsin today (and Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania tomorrow) is the future of American competitiveness. According to the latest Pew polling, the American people understand that unions make it harder for America to compete globally. Government unions are simply a parasite on the U.S. economy. When President Obama came into office, he shielded government unions from transparency by ending their reporting requirements to the Department of Labor. As a result it is impossible for the American people to know for sure how much of their taxpayer revenue is being diverted into union coffers. But if you assume that each union member pays between $500 and $750 annually, taken involuntarily directly from their paychecks, that means the government union industry in Wisconsin is worth at least $100 million a year.
If government employees want to voluntarily form associations and lobby the government for higher pay, better benefits, and working conditions, that is their constitutional right. But they have no right to force all employees to join their organization and take money from their paychecks every week. Governor Walker’s bill fixes these problems: It affords government workers the right to quit their union and keep their jobs; it requires unions to demonstrate their support through annual secret-ballot votes; and it stops state and local governments from collecting union dues through their payroll systems. These are common-sense measures that would increase worker freedom, restore power to taxpayers, and make America more competitive internationally. Keep fighting, Governor Walker! The American people can’t afford you to lose.