Asked recently if he was a "union buster," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker answered, "I know that collective bargaining is not a right; it's an expensive entitlement. It's about time somebody stood up for the hardworking taxpayers of our state."
Labor unions disagree. With their very existence threatened by reforms like Walker's, they have resorted to the argument that their privileges are in fact civil rights. So far, the courts disagree.
The latest example came when several unions sued in federal court to overturn the Wisconsin collective bargaining reforms for government unions (Act 10.) The reforms had been a main feature of Walker's campaign, had been passed by the legislature in defiance of attempted mob rule, and had been upheld by state courts. President Obama has supported the unions' fight in general (and has not condemned the court move despite his newfound belief that courts cannot overturn "economic laws.") On March 30, a federal judge upheld the substance of Act 10 while striking down two smaller parts.
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin Judge William Conley ruled that the state could limit collective bargaining for government employees and protect the workers' right to not pay union dues while still keeping their jobs. However, he also ruled that the state could not require unions to be recertified every year or prohibit dues deductions from government paychecks.
The key point was not the merits of Act 10 but the fact that they were not universally applied. The court ruled that the recertification and dues deduction provisions violated the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution because they exempted public safety unions. They might have been ruled constitutional were they applied to all union members.
Act 10 already has yielded benefits, with projected savings to the state and local governments of more than $600 million. Examples include the Kaukauna school district, which went from a $400,000 deficit to a $1.5 million surplus, reduced class sizes, and rewarded high-performing teachers with merit pay. The Appleton school district was able to save $3.1 million after putting its employee health plan out for competitive bidding because the union was forced by competitive pressure to bring its rates down to market levels. The savings even resulted in small reduction in property taxes. Judge Conley -- an Obama appointee -- upheld the parts of Act 10 that allowed for these savings.
However, the judge also upheld what he called various "rights" of government unions. These include having Wisconsin taxpayers (by way of the government) act as union bill collectors and allowing them to exist in perpetuity, even if only a small percentage of workers actually voted to certify the union in the first place. These "rights" are in fact privileges that do little to nothing to help individual workers. Allowing dues deductions directly from paychecks simply saves organized labor administrative costs. Taking away workers' ability to reelect their union simply entrenches union power at the expense of members' free choice.
This battle is by no means over. Government union bosses will pour ever more resources into efforts to have their privileges officially recognized as rights by the courts. As Governor Walker said, "The larger philosophical issue is, who controls things in government? Do the taxpayers, or do the public employee union bosses?"