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Eye on the News

Daniel DiSalvo
Showdown in Madison
The real stakes in the unions’ battle with Wisconsin’s governor are philosophical.
22 February 2011

Wisconsin’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, has sparked a national debate over the desirability of a unionized government workforce. His proposed “budget repair” bill has provoked a furious reaction from public employees and their Democratic allies, and as many as 60,000 protesters have descended on the state’s capitol in Madison. Last week, teachers effectively went on strike by calling in sick in such large numbers that many schools had to close. Democratic state senators fled to Illinois, where they’re still hiding out to prevent a vote on the measure. Even President Obama has weighed in, saying that Walker’s proposals sounded like an “assault on unions.”

Walker’s measure has two major components. The first requires public workers to pay more of their pension and health-care costs, effectively reducing their take-home pay by 8 percent. This call for shared sacrifice in trimming the state’s budget follows the trail blazed by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Though such cuts certainly cause hardship for the (mostly) middle-class people whose discretionary income is being cut, the Wisconsin unions have said that they’re willing to agree to something along these lines.

The second and far more controversial part of Walker’s bill would restrict collective-bargaining rights for most public employees. State workers could no longer bargain collectively about pensions and health-care benefits, though they could continue to do so about wages; union members’ salaries could rise no faster than the Consumer Price Index; and an annual vote would be required in which workers would decide whether to keep the union in existence. Further, union dues would no longer be automatically deducted from state workers’ paychecks; instead, workers wouldn’t pay dues unless they voluntarily decided to become union members. And responsibility for collecting the dues—which takes time and money—would shift from the state to the union. Taken together, these measures would substantially reduce public-sector union power in Wisconsin and provide a template for reformers elsewhere.

Critics argue that Walker himself has created the crisis in the state’s finances in order to push a larger agenda. The charge isn’t absurd. The tax cuts that he enacted immediately on taking office moved Wisconsin out of the black and slightly into the red for this fiscal year (though the state already had projected deficits of $3.6 billion for the next two years). The state’s pension fund for its employees is in decent shape. And public-sector compensation in Wisconsin, while generous, isn’t wildly out of sync with the state’s private sector, as it is elsewhere in the country.

So if Wisconsin isn’t New York or California, why directly confront the unions? For one thing, it’s good politics: weakening the unions will dry up a big source of campaign cash for Democrats. Yet there are also matters of principle. Traditional democratic theory holds that elected officials, carrying out the will of the people as expressed in competitive elections, should determine public priorities and how public policy is carried out. But if elected officials must bargain with unelected ones—the representatives of permanent government employees—to get anything done, voters turn over decision-making power to people whom elections cannot hold accountable.

Furthermore, public-sector unions reduce government effectiveness. Collective bargaining over working conditions makes government more rigid and rule-bound. It limits the discretion of elected officials, reducing innovation and experimentation. Government unionism also has a ratcheting effect on salaries and benefits, causing them to increase in ways largely detached from broader economic conditions. The result is long-term structural debt, which crowds out spending on other priorities.

The political battle in Madison is wrenching, for obvious reasons. Most teachers, secretaries, and park workers are regular Americans who have played by the rules and developed certain expectations. Shattering those expectations is painful. Public employees and their union representatives cannot be expected to embrace change happily. But if Walker’s law passes, it may well give Wisconsin officials the flexibility to make government less costly and more effective.

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

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