Like many national Democrats, President Barack Obama weighed in on behalf of government unions in Wisconsin last week.
“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,” he said.
The funny thing about this statement is that federal workers have very limited collective bargaining rights — and Obama has not been shy about exploiting that weakness. He is using the budget process to push a two-year freeze on federal workers’ pay, without any buy-in from unions.
If he were the governor of Wisconsin, Obama would have to plead with union heads to allow the freeze. So who is really assaulting unions?
I do not mean to criticize Obama for the wage freeze, which is an appropriate policy. But the president should be mindful that the same powers he finds useful for managing the federal budget are even more important at the state and local levels, where lawmakers cannot respond to revenue shortfalls by running massive deficits.
If the federal government cannot afford collective bargaining for wages, you can bet state and local governments cannot either.
Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., is not the first state lawmaker to figure this out. You would not know it from the union protesters screaming in Madison like the sky is going to fall or from liberal columnists such as the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who claims Walker wants to make America “less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy,” but public-sector collective bargaining is hardly a universal feature of democracy.
Only 26 states have laws like Wisconsin’s granting collective bargaining rights to most public workers. And 12 states have no public-sector collective bargaining law.
In these states, state workers have no legal right to collectively bargain. Local governments can choose whether to grant bargaining rights. (In a few states, including Virginia, local governments are actually barred from engaging in collective bargaining.) Another 12 states have limited collective bargaining laws that apply only to certain classes of workers, such as state employees or teachers.
So Walker’s reform, which would sharply limit the scope of collective bargaining for most public workers other than police and firefighters, is not unprecedented. Indeed, it is arguably more liberal than current federal policy — while federal workers have no ability to bargain wages, Walker would allow Wisconsin workers to bargain for cost-of-living increases up to the consumer price index, and more if approved by voters.
Taxpayers have good reason to be wary of public-sector collective bargaining. It is even stated on the AFSCME website: “We elect our bosses.”
When a union sits across the table from public officials it helped to elect, that is not a negotiation — it’s a recipe for runaway costs and taxpayers getting squeezed.
A perfect example is visible in the Washington, D.C., area. Montgomery County has collective bargaining for public employees, while Fairfax County does not. In 2008, when the recession started hurting tax revenue, Fairfax County froze employee wages. That option was not available to Montgomery County. By 2010, Montgomery was left struggling with four times Fairfax’s budget gap, and with fewer tools to close it.
This is not a partisan difference — Fairfax and Montgomery counties are both run by Democrats. It is a matter of the greater ability of public employee unions to resist cost cuts when they have collective bargaining rights.
If Walker has his way and Wisconsin sharply limits public employee collective bargaining, look for local elected officials of both parties to be grateful for the added ability to manage their budgets. As Obama and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors have both shown, unilateral control over employee compensation is a valuable tool that elected officials should want in their arsenal.
Josh Barro is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and editor of PublicSectorInc.org, which shines a spotlight on public sector issues in state and city governments.