The Magazine

Beyond Wisconsin

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Last Tuesday night, shortly after conceding defeat in the election to recall Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett was confronted by a supporter. According to Politico, the woman asked Barrett if she could slap him. Barrett responded, “I’d rather you hug me.” The television footage reveals that Barrett was understandably startled when the woman went ahead and slapped him. You’d be hardpressed to come up with a better metaphor for how the relationship between public sector unions and Democrats is unraveling.

Tom Barrett

For all the talk of a polarized America, it turns out opposition to public sector unions is broad, deep, and bipartisan. After staking his governorship on union reforms, Walker won his recall election by a convincing 7 points—a wider margin than when he won the office in 2010, and this time amidst heavy turnout and against fierce national opposition. The takeaway is that Wisconsin voters approve of -Walker’s curbing the power of public employee unions. Liberal pundits have tied themselves in knots to avoid this obvious conclusion—the popular narrative on the left is to cite exit polling data that shows Wisconsin’s polite electorate simply found the idea of recall elections distasteful.

This alibi conveniently ignores other telling results from last Tuesday’s voting. While all eyes were on Wisconsin, San Jose and San Diego voters overwhelmingly reined in the exorbitant retirement packages of their unionized city workers. The California pension measures passed by 71 and 68 percent, respectively. There is no way to spin that result: A substantial number of California Democrats voted against public sector unions, and the pension curbs were backed by  key Democratic politicians in those cities. Two days after the measures in San Jose and San Diego passed, Los Angeles mayor and Obama campaign co-chair Antonio Villaraigosa asked officials to fast track sweeping public pension reforms in his city as well.

The other revelation is that the union political agenda isn’t supported by .  .  . union members. According to exit polls, 38 percent of Walker’s votes came from households that include union members. (Given that the exit polls underestimated Walker’s margin of victory, the percentage of union workers supporting Walker may be even higher.)

MSNBC’s Ed Schultz demanded that union supporters of Walker “explain to your country and your union why the hell you did that.” There are a number of obvious explanations. One is that collective bargaining in the private sector is very different than in the public sector. As late as 1955, George Meany, the former head of the AFL-CIO, argued it’s “impossible to bargain collectively with the government” and Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed public sector unions on principle. Government workers have always been relatively well compensated, and unlike blue-collar union workers, they are guarded against exploitation by civil service protections. Private sector unions don’t elect their bosses; public workers vote for the officials with whom they will be bargaining. And private laborers are paid out of business earnings. Public sector workers are paid by increasingly hard-pressed taxpayers—upwards of $3 trillion in public pension liabilities threaten to bankrupt governments across the country these days.

Walker’s union reforms have also conclusively demonstrated that many public sector union members don’t want to be in unions. Coercive dues have always been key to the American labor movement, even as unions have self-righteously insisted workers want unions. In 2010, one of organized labor’s most prominent thinkers, Chicago lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, broke ranks with the labor movement by suggesting in an article in the Nation that it should be a civil right not to be forced to pay union dues. Geoghegan speculated that the number of free riders would be comparable to the German workforce, where only about 20 percent don’t pay dues. 

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