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Why the Unions Fight

The stakes in Wisconsin are higher than they look.

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By DANIEL DISALVO
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Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s new governor, has brought on a showdown with public sector unions and their Democratic allies in his state. He seeks to get most state workers to pay for their pension and health benefits, to narrow collective bargaining to wages, to stop the state from collecting union dues, and to require annual union certification elections. In response, the unions have launched two weeks of angry protests in Madison, the state’s capital. Walker (in office barely a month) has been compared to Hitler, Mubarak, and Mussolini, while Democratic state senators have spurned democratic norms and fled to Illinois to prevent a vote on Walker’s bill. Nonetheless, the Republican-controlled state assembly has forged ahead and voted in favor of the measure.

Why the Unions Fight

AP Photo, Gene J. Puskar

But does the “assault” (President Obama’s term) on public employee unions in Wisconsin really require, as one former union leader wrote in the Nation, “labor’s last stand”? To answer this question one must separate the wheat from the chaff. Much attention has misleadingly focused on benefit contributions and collective bargaining restrictions, which are not the main reasons labor and its allies are up in arms. If they were all that was at stake, labor would be overreacting. But they aren’t. The real issues are union dues and certification elections, both of which would reach into unions’ wallets and take away money they would otherwise use, in most cases, to fund the Democratic party. 

Most observers, including the unions, now agree that Walker can legitimately ask for more “shared sacrifice” and, with the consent of the legislature, force state workers to contribute more to their benefits in an effort to shore up the state’s finances. Even if Walker’s proposals pass, Wisconsin workers will still be paying far less than the average government employee and much less than private sector workers do. 

More controversially, the mere mention of collective bargaining has driven some critics into hysterical claims that “basic democratic rights” are being trampled. Aside from the word “rights,” these legal provisions share almost nothing with civil or constitutional rights. Twenty-four states either permit no collective bargaining for public employees or allow it only to certain classes of workers—usually police and firefighters. Only 26 states have collective bargaining laws covering most government workers. Even if Wisconsin succeeds in limiting collective bargaining to wages, it will remain in the latter category.

Walker wants to strip unions of their right to bargain over benefits and work rules and limit the subject of bargaining to wages. His rationale is that wage increases must be factored into public budgets immediately and are more easily restrained because voters can see what is going on. But the bill for pension and retiree health care benefits doesn’t come due until the politicians who promise them are long out of office. And there are powerful incentives for politicians to run up the bill. The unions contribute to politicians’ campaigns and then lobby those same politicians for benefit “sweeteners” as payback. Consequently, too many government employees receive too much compensation after they stop working. Many of the states with the largest unfunded benefit liabilities are strong public sector union states. But public sector collective bargaining is far from the sole cause of such unfunded liabilities, and many states without it still have them. Wisconsin is doing comparatively well on this score.

And limiting collective bargaining would hardly constitute the end of public employee unionism in Wisconsin. Police and firefighters’ unions would be exempt under the governor’s proposal, and just because collective bargaining would be legally required only for wages doesn’t mean something like bargaining for other things wouldn’t happen. In fact, many states informally bargained with workers’ organizations prior to the passage of mandatory bargaining laws. If public sector unions could continue to spend as much as they currently do on electioneering and lobbying, these informal channels would still remain. 

So we come to where the rubber meets the road: the money unions spend on politicking. This money originates with taxpayers, who pay public employees’ salaries, a portion of which is deducted in the form of union dues and then used by the unions to support, almost exclusively, the Democratic party. The public, in effect, subsidizes a powerful demand for bigger government and higher taxes. 

From the unions’ point of view, therefore, Walker’s proposals regarding the mode of dues collection poses the biggest threat. Under the current arrangement in Wisconsin—called a “closed shop”—public employees automatically pay the full amount of union dues ($1,100 per year for teachers), and the state deducts those dollars directly from their paychecks. Any employee who disagrees with the union’s political activity must decide to opt out of paying dues (beyond the portion that covers the administrative costs of collective bargaining). This arrangement means that few workers opt out, and the unions receive a large, steady stream of revenue, while saving on administrative overhead. Under Walker’s plan, workers wouldn’t pay union dues unless they signed a union card. This is called an “open shop” and exists in nearly half the states. It would, as Walker correctly told a David Koch impersonator on the phone, “hurt” the unions by cutting deeply into their revenue and reducing membership.

In addition, Walker wants to require unions to hold an annual election to see if a majority in a bargaining unit chooses to retain the union. Elections are expensive and time consuming. Therefore, even when the unions win, elections take away from their political operations. When they lose, they go out of business. 

If passed, Walker’s proposals will diminish the amount of money his state’s public employee unions can spend on political activity, and they will reduce the percentage of government workers belonging to unions. At a time when the majority of union members in the country are government employees, “the public sector unions are the heart and pulse of the American labor movement,” as AFSCME president Gerald McEntee recently said. Therefore, reducing the money flowing from public -employees to the Democratic party means jackhammering one of the foundations of contemporary liberalism. 

Whatever its merits, especially the freeing up of local governments to make cuts, Walker’s project isn’t a cure-all for his state’s short-term fiscal problems. Certainly, having fewer public sector unions is no guarantee of fiscal sanity in the future, as the number of states without strong public sector unions that have big budget deficits attests. But it probably helps. In addition, many states without unionized governments have faster-growing economies, increasing populations, and better-performing governments. The Badger State wants to be in that club.

Daniel DiSalvo is assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY.


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