The news is filled with images of protests and riots around Madison, Wis. One could be forgiven for comparing the crowd sentiment in Madison with the revolutionary fervor engulfing the autocracies of the Middle East. That is, except for one critical detail: in Madison, the courageous rebel is under siege, and the forces of the status quo are rioting in the streets. Governor Scott Walker has lined up the votes needed to pass a critical reform that would reduce public sector unions’ stranglehold on Wisconsin’s coffers. But the state’s Democrat lawmakers have abandoned their offices, denying the Senate a needed quorum. As union thugs converged on Madison, the Democrats ran, fittingly, to Illinois — a state that has already been fiscally destroyed by its public sector unions.
Liberal leaders have screamed on that Governor Walker’s attempt to weaken public sector unions is an attack on the middle class. This argument would make sense if government coffers were filled with manna from on high rather than money forcibly taken from taxpayers working in the private sector. The reality is that public sector workers have been receiving overly generous compensation packages at the peoples’ expense. The large size of this particular special interest group — all of Wisconsin’s state and municipal government employees — does not change the fact that unionized public sector employees are a special interest group nonetheless, one that has been living large on the taxpayer dime.
All this in an economy with a 9 percent unemployment rate, while government employees remain notoriously difficult to fire. Private sector workers often get no pension at all, and have little but their savings and Social Security to retire on. Furthermore, private sector workers cannot retire until they are at least 65. Public sector employees, however, face retirement ages below 60 if they have worked for the government for at least 25 years. They receive pensions worth more than the entire salaries of most current government workers. All that in addition to Social Security.
Liberal opinion leaders almost universally reject Governor Walker’s push to limit collective bargaining rights for public employees, as they claim that collective bargaining is a sacred right. But Walker’s move represents little more than an attempt to bring state government workers in line with federal government workers, most of whom lack the right to strike or bargain collectively themselves.
President Obama criticized Governor Walker by alleging that he is engaged in an “assault” on basic worker rights. Luckily, Obama was forced to change gears when conservative intellectuals pointed out that Governor Walker is merely trying to get the powers President Obama already has himself: to control labor costs in government. Indeed, Governor Walker’s proposal only eliminates collective bargaining on pension and retirement benefits; public employees will still be able to bargain collectively on their salaries. Since federal government employees tend to lack any collective bargaining power, President Obama presides, by his own definition, over a much more rigorous “assault” on government workers than Walker’s.
The Left’s distortions have painted government employees as identical counterparts to private sector workers. It’s worth noting that unionization has collapsed in the private sector because of the need for a more flexible labor market; nonetheless, no one would deny that private sector workers have a right to organize a union if they so desire. Most private sector employees don’t want to unionize their firms because they know that the move will raise labor costs, necessitating either layoffs or outsourcing of jobs to cheap markets abroad. Public sector employees and unions, however, have no such limit: there is no competitor, no outside force that will discipline them and force them to make reasonable demands. If they strike, the government must halt operations and inevitably cave. Indeed, while private sector workers must negotiate with profit-oriented management, public employees negotiate with the elected politicians they often control.
It is no secret that public sector unions are the most potent organizing force for many Democrat legislators. Consequently, a very large number of legislators are beholden to them, and in negotiations deliver the largest concessions the public will allow rather than negotiating to get the best deal for taxpayers. It’s the principal-agent problem at its worst: politicians, the managers of public sector employees, often negotiate to give as much taxpayer money as possible to these unions. In other words, due to the electoral power of unions and their campaign season foot soldiers, public sector unions enjoy a massive edge that the rest of us don’t have.
Governor Walker has made a brave stand. Hopefully he will get some sort of bill passed that restrains public sector unions and gives taxpayers a fair shake. If he fails, it will be a blow to all of us and a gift to a long-subsidized special interest.
Trevor Wagener is a senior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.