Wisconsin's Democratic state senators and leaders of the Badger State's government employee unions have given taxpayers nationwide an illustration of the corrupt political bargain at the heart of collective bargaining wherever it is found in the public sector.
One side of this corrupt bargain is seen in the fact that public employee unions in Wisconsin contributed more than $130,000 in the 2010 election cycle to Democrats in the state legislature, compared with a mere $8,050 to Republicans. As The Washington Examiner reported last week, nearly half of the Democrat total went to the unions' favorite state legislator in his unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor; a victory would have set him up for the governorship. The hard data on campaign contributions don't include significant independent spending by the public-sector unions on behalf of Wisconsin Democrats, nor does it count the value to them of union volunteers licking envelopes, manning telephone banks and doing get-out-the-vote work on their behalf.
The other side of the corrupt bargain is the excessively generous, tax-paid compensation and benefits for public-sector employees, approved by the very same legislators who benefited from their campaign contributions. In Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual household income — including families with two incomes — is $52,000, while the average single-income family brings in only $40,500. By comparison, the average full-time individual Wisconsin state employee receives, depending upon a variety of factors, between $50,000 and $60,000 annually in combined salary and benefits, while contributing little toward either pensions or health insurance.
But the most significant difference between single-income families in the private sector and state employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere isn't in the raw numbers — it's that the former have to pay the taxes that fund compensation for the latter. This applies to union and nonunion private-sector workers; both pay the taxes that fund government employee pay and benefits. So when politicians team up with the public employee unions that contribute to them, they are joining forces against the taxpayers. No wonder President Franklin D. Roosevelt was unalterably opposed to collective bargaining for public employee unions, saying “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
It wasn't that long ago that the struggle in Washington and in state capitals around the nation succeeded in ridding public employment of the spoils system — “to the winners go the spoils,” including government jobs — so beloved by politicians in both major parties. At the same time, reformers wisely passed laws like the federal Hatch Act to keep partisan politics out of government employment. But allowing public employee unions to make campaign contributions opens the back door for the return of the old evils. Besides restoring equity between public- and private-sector compensation, today's reformers should also make it a priority to put an end to these corrupt bargains by getting government employee unions out of the political campaign finance business.