The Magazine

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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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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