Wisconsin was the birthplace of American public-sector unionism, where in 1936 the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees first organized in Madison. How ironic then that Wisconsin also might be the place where in 2011 public-sector unions began to die.
Like a lot of states, Wisconsin is in dire fiscal shape, facing a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Desperate to avoid layoffs yet still put his state’s financial house in order, newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a bill that would strip Wisconsin’s state employees — whose bloated pensions and benefits packages have significantly contributed to the mess — of most of their collective bargaining rights (police and firefighters would be exempt).
Under the new plan, state employees’ own contributions to their pension and health care plans would increase to 5.8 percent and 12.6 percent of their pay, respectively. They would still retain the right to be represented by a union, but the unions would no longer be able to force members to pay dues.
In addition, unions’ ability to secure a pay increase above a fixed threshold would be severely curtailed. The bill would result in estimated savings of $30 million over the next five months and $300 million over the next two years. In exchange for these concessions from the unions, Walker has promised not to lay off any of the state’s 170,000 employees.
Sounds reasonable, right? Well, not if you are a Wisconsin teacher, thousands of whom refused to report to work in protest of Walker’s bill, forcing the closure of some two dozen schools. Democrats in the Wisconsin state Senate have acted just as irresponsibly.
None of the senate’s 14 Democrats was present Feb. 17 as the body prepared to vote on Walker’s measure, successfully preventing a quorum and delaying the vote. The Governor’s Office prepared to send out state troopers to return the recalcitrant Democrats, though many legislators were reported to have left the state.
The earthquake in Wisconsin is reverberating all the way to the nation’s capital. President Barack Obama has made clear his sympathies are with the protesters, decrying Walker’s bill as an “assault” on unions.
In response, Walker said, “We are focused on balancing our budget. It would be wise for the government and others in Washington to focus on balancing their budgets, which they are a long way off from doing.”
Walker and other governors, such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie, are at last joining a battle that is long overdue. For decades, public sector unions have used their influence to help elect their own bosses and then demand lavish pension and health care benefits for their reward.
The unfunded obligations piled up as pliant politicians paid off their union masters and kicked the can down the road, leaving a mess for future taxpayers and future governors to clean up. Well, the time to clean up has finally arrived.
Matt Patterson is the senior editor at the Capital Research Center.