It's Taps

We’re witnessing the last gasp of public sector unionism

By Stephen F. Hayes

On Feb. 6, 2011, the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, returning the Lombardi Trophy to its proper home at 1265 Lombardi Ave. For several days hence, the entire state of Wisconsin — save a few misguided Vikings fans in the west — celebrated the triumph in impromptu gatherings at Austin Straubel Airport, at the official victory parade and over beers in less formal settings all over Wisconsin.

This euphoria and unity ended abruptly on Feb. 11 when Gov. Scott Walker announced his plans to restrict public sector collective bargaining and restructure taxpayer-paid benefits of government employees. Within days, there were tens of thousands of protesters filling the streets of Madison angrily defending the status quo.

The media focused on the protests. After all, they’re loud, colorful and make for good television. There were X-rated posters and forceful denunciations of the governor and his proposed changes. Walker’s approval rating took a hit.

But lost in the hubbub was an essential truth: Wisconsin’s public employee unions were knocked into a powerful downward vortex. They’ve lost power, prestige and public support. And things are almost certain to worsen for them over the next few years.

For ordinary taxpayers across the state the real news out of the protests was that in an economy in which many people didn’t have much job security — and a growing number didn’t even have a job — Wisconsinites who worked in the public sector had both.

And as private sector employees worked to cover the costs of their health care and retirement plans, they learned, perhaps for the first time, that many public sector employees were contributing very little toward their own health and retirement costs.

Even the harshest critics of the proposed reforms conceded the point. “Walker is right about one thing,” wrote Eugene Robinson, prominent liberal columnist for The Washington Post. “When it comes to pensions and benefits, public workers in Wisconsin have a sweet deal. Most of them put less than 1% of their pay into their pensions; Walker’s bill would require contributions of at least 5.8%. And most pay only about 6% of the cost of their health insurance premiums, a figure that Walker wants to raise to 12.6. It’s easy to see why the average private-sector worker in Wisconsin — probably paying upward of 25% toward health insurance costs and struggling to tuck away something, anything for retirement — might agree with Walker.”

Indeed, they did.

Throughout the battle for Wisconsin, union leadership offered dire warnings about the catastrophic consequences of the bill’s passage. Taxpayers were told repeatedly that while the changes would have no positive budgetary impact, they would have severe consequences on the lives of public sector workers.

Some teachers came to believe that the changes would require them to give up nearly 20% of their salary — 5.8% toward retirement and 12.6% toward health care. They were wrong, but union leaders did little to correct their misimpressions. This led to scenes like the one on a Milwaukee newscast in which a teacher wept because she believed that Walker’s reforms would leave her family homeless.

But the sun rose the morning after the budget bill became law, and it has risen every day since. There have been some potentially negative consequences of the reforms. Teachers across the state are retiring at a higher rate than before, meaning fewer experienced teachers in classrooms this year. But there is an upside to this development, too: The most experienced teachers are the highest paid, and fewer of them means immediate cost savings beyond what had been anticipated.

Not only have the Chicken Little claims of the pro-union crowd failed to come true, it is increasingly clear that the reforms are working. Despite the claims of critics like Eugene Robinson, who insisted that the proposed reforms had “nothing to do with balancing the state’s budget,” a steady stream of news stories since the bill become law demonstrates that the reforms are, in fact, having a significant impact on state and local spending.

“Despite early criticism from city officials, new figures show Milwaukee will gain more than it will lose next year from the state’s controversial budget and budget-repair legislation,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in August. “The city projects it will save at least $25 million a year — and potentially as much as $36 million in 2012 — from health care benefit changes it didn’t have to negotiate with unions, as a result of provisions in the 2009-’11 budget-repair measure that ended most collective bargaining for most public employees.”

For these reasons and a host of others, Democrats in the state’s recent recall elections, heavily backed by local and national unions, failed to win the three state senate seats necessary to take control of the Legislature’s upper chamber. Union partisans have chosen to cast the protests and the recalls as a reinvigoration of union activism, no matter their manifest failure.

It’s an admirable attempt at spin. But in addition to raising public awareness of the benefits of public sector work, and beyond the fact that the unions’ hyperbole has surely damaged their credibility, there is a third factor that virtually ensures the battles in Wisconsin will be a last gasp for public sector unionism: The practical effects of the reform plan itself severely weakened the ability of unions to attract and keep members.

Two changes in particular are responsible: The law ends forced union membership, and it dramatically restricts the collective bargaining power of unions. The former means that public employees can opt out of the union and, importantly, from paying its dues. For a teacher in the Madison suburbs, that might mean savings of $1,100 a year — money that could be used to make up for the additional funds going to health care premiums.

The latter takes away the strongest argument unions have to persuade these newly liberated public employees to join voluntarily. If the union no longer has the power to win gold-standard pension and health benefits, why would the average teacher choose to spend a chunk of his or her earnings to become a dues-paying member?

There was a reason that public sector unions fought these changes as if their very existence depended on it…

Maybe it did.

Stephen Hayes, a Wauwatosa native, is a senior writer with The Weekly Standard.