Schools were closed today in Madison, Wisconsin, because many teachers were planning to call in sick so they could protest at the state Capitol. Public employees in Wisconsin are upset by Governor Scott Walker’s plan to help bring down the state budget shortfall. The proposed bill would have state and local employees contribute more to their pensions and would end most collective bargaining rights for government workers. Wisconsin currently faces a budget shortfall of between $2.2 and $3.3 billion and a total state debt of $17.9 billion.
Walker’s plan asks state workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions and to pay at least 12.6 percent toward their healthcare premiums. Public employees are twice as likely to receive pensions, which are often much more generous than pensions for private sector workers. Most of the pensions and benefits for public workers are paid for by taxpayers.
Collective bargaining for public employees has long been a controversial issue. Since governments take their revenue from the productive private sector through taxation, they often lack the political will to bargain effectively, resulting in waste and excessive benefits. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed unionization of public sector workers and said in 1937:
All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations … The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for … officials … to bind the employer … The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives …
Most union members today work in the public sector, but Wisconsin has a chance to achieve fiscal sanity by preventing public liabilities from getting out of control.