You wouldn’t know it from the recall election campaign itself, but yesterday’s failed attempt to unseat reforming Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin was all about the powers and privileges of labor unions. It was union outrage at his public sector labor reforms, which gave government employees the right to choose whether to join a union that set the recall election in motion.
The government unions were out for revenge, but the campaign of Walker’s Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett, found the issue of union power so off-putting to voters, that he barely mentioned it. Scott Walker’s victory sends a clear message: Wisconsinites are tired of over-mighty unions restricting worker freedom—and picking workers’ pockets—for their own benefit.
Walker’s reforms that so enraged the militant left came from a simple principle: that no-one should be forced to join or pay for a labour union. There was no attempt to ban unions or otherwise undermine anyone’s right of free association. Government unions are still free to recruit members who value the benefits they provide (disclosure: I was a member of the National Union of Civil and Public Servants in the UK; I joined for the excellent rates on its affiliated credit card). The difference is that now they may not coerce unwilling workers into paying for their activities, which include political campaigning and lobbying.
Walker’s reforms also limited collective bargaining to wages only. The result was that union monopolies on services such as teacher health insurance were now open to competition—this saved one school district $3.1 million without any cutbacks in benefits. The bill also moderately increased the amount government workers contribute to their retirement plans. And even then, it stretched credulity for Wisconsin government workers to plead poverty due to those changes—their pensions are still 4.5 times more valuable than those of the private sector workers who pay to support them, their health care is twice as valuable and their average take-home compensation is 22 percent greater.
That’s it. That’s what so inflamed the self-styled progressive movement to the extent that their political allies in the state Senate fled Wisconsin to prevent legislation from passing. That so annoyed them that they flooded the state Capitol in an attempt to impose mob rule. That so infuriated them that they poured massive amounts of money into Wisconsin to defeat an elected governor—money raised from union members’ dues, often coerced in other states that do not enjoy the freedom Walker brought to Wisconsin workers. That was all it took.
Why were they so incensed by this simple increase in worker freedom? Because it broke the cycle that enriched and empowered labour unions, making them political powerhouses. That it happened in the state that first gave government employee unions compulsory collective bargaining powers makes Walker’s victory even more salient. It’s about time. Elected officials in other states should take heed. Here’s why.
When government unions can collect dues from every worker’s paycheck, they use much of that money to fund election campaigns to help elect their friends. When those friends take power, they generally accede to union demands for an expanded government workforce and higher wages and benefits. A bigger government workforce means more potential union members, while higher wages and benefits mean more dues for the union—which means more funds for their friends’ election campaigns, and so on. This vicious cycle has helped drive many state and local government budgets around the US deep into the red.
Yet a look at the problem offers a solution. Curbing government unions’ access to unwilling workers’ paychecks means less money from forced dues—which means less of the political power unions need to push for increased workforces and higher pay. The cycle is broken. Close: Walker finished with a 7 per cent lead, despite exit poll results indicating a 50:50 split with Tom Barrett (pictured)
Yesterday’s result shows that the voters of Wisconsin, once a labour union stronghold, have had enough of this abuse of power. Workplace choice is attractive to voters. Government unions should recognize that they have killed the goose that laid the golden egg, and reinvent themselves to provide more benefits to attract members, rather than try to run electoral machines.