Ben DeGrow is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute, focusing on education labor issues.
Plenty of pixels have been expended in the past five days to report and discuss the momentous happenings in Madison, Wisc. Whoever thought the Badger State would receive even more national spotlight so soon after Aaron Rodgers and the Packers secured Super Bowl champion prestige? But it’s worth all the coverage. The significance of unfolding events in Wisconsin’s capital is hard to overestimate.
Start with the fact that Wisconsin was the first state to grant government workers collective bargaining rights (in 1959). Just over half a century later, and the unsustainable trend unleashed is about to get seriously reined in. Ignored was the wisdom of reliably pro-labor Democratic Party icon Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his presidency FDR strenuously resisted the notion of public-sector unionism, famously asserting:
All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service….The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.
Government worker unions are a different breed than their private-sector counterparts. Commenting on the affair, Time Magazine editor and liberal stalwart Joe Klein ably catches the vital distinction:
Public employees unions are an interesting hybrid. Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed…of the public?
The events unfolding in Wisconsin are highly relevant to these pages because teachers unions are among the largest and strongest labor organizations in America. The degree of unions’ political influence can be exaggerated (slightly), but their collective ability to block unwanted policy changes is almost unrivaled.
If you don’t believe me, what other group could get an entire party caucus to flee their legislative duties and hide across state lines in order to forestall a vote that would weaken its legally-protected privileges? As for the unions themselves, they aren’t winning political sympathies from staging sick-outs (“by all means, defend your right to collectively bargain an agreement that you can flout at your convenience”) or getting fake doctors’ notes to cover for them.
But so it goes in Wisconsin. What is it about Senate Bill 11′s attempt to fix a looming $3.6 billion budget hole that drives the protests and the political posturing of opponents? It didn’t take long for Democratic legislators in exile to offer capitulation on the modest and eminently reasonable proposals to increase government workers’ retirement and health insurance contributions.
What else is at stake? A lot of hyperbolic rhetoric has flown around, including some National Education Association talking points that have floated into many Colorado teachers’ email inboxes (e.g., the claim that “educators will have no say in school quality issues,” an irresponsible and self-serving distortion of reality). Amid all the confusion, the other key points of the budget-repair legislation are not precisely understood:
- Limiting the scope of collective bargaining to worker salaries, with total negotiated increases above the inflation rate subject to local voter referendum, which would enhance public accountability to one of the largest drivers of government cost and neutralizing the power of arbitrators to reward unions for lavish proposals;
- Requiring an annual affirmative opt-in to continue a union’s status as exclusive bargaining representative through a simple majority vote of affected workers, which simply would ensure greater accountability in unions’ claims that they operate democratically; and
- Prohibiting government agencies from collecting union dues through member payroll deductions, which would end the cycle of using government resources to raise funds that are used to reward political candidates and perpetuate union power.
Since last week I’ve already been asked more than once: Could or should something like Wisconsin’s Senate Bill 11 be done in Colorado? First of all, apart from the lack of symbolism here, a smaller and less militant government union sector would make such a legislative dispute less dramatic. But more fundamentally, it wouldn’t all work in the Colorado context.
Wisconsin has a long-established and recognized body of public-sector labor law that simply does not exist here. For Colorado state legislators to have some mandated public school (or other) collective bargaining procedures to alter or remove, there would have to be something enshrined in state statute in the first place. Since there isn’t, agenda items 1 and 2 would make very little sense for a Colorado lawmaker to introduce. The third item, on the other hand, is not inextricably linked to the union negotiating process. A repeat of 2008′s citizen-initiated Amendment 49 (sponsored by the Independence Institute where I work) doubtless still would draw more dues funds spent on outrageous and misleading advertising.
The proposals championed by Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans would not wash away workers’ rights. Rather, they would open the door to fiscal sustainability by providing greater flexibility to elected government officials and restoring some power and accountability to taxpaying citizens. Wisconsin is receiving a large share of attention for good reason: A few states are following suit, and others soon may jump in.
Driven by the overwhelming fiscal crisis facing most state governments, what’s taking place in the Badger State looks to be a watershed. The Tea Parties are flexing their muscles, while politically-reinforced government employee unions are making a Waterloo-like stand. An identical repeat in Colorado is off the table, but local school boards may be impelled to take a closer look at negotiated policies that empower union interests over the public interest.
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