Breaking Union Power in the Heartland

You can always count Democrats to pick the wrong battle.

The new Republican Governor of union-dominated Wisconsin is using his new Republican majority in the Legislature to deal with crippling structural problems in the government workforce.  Along the way he is confronting the power of the public sector unions.  Among the “radical” proposals in Wisconsin’s SB 11:

– Require public employees to make some contribution to their own pensions.

– Require them to pay a portion of the cost of their own health insurance.

– Allow union members to vote annually on whether to retain a union.

– Tie wage increases to inflation.

– Remove the state’s obligation to negotiate a union contract on any term other than salary.

These proposals would not affect public safety occupations – police and firefighters. Success on this effort in the union heartland is likely to ripple across the country.

Democrats warn that SB11 would break the power of public sector unions.  Hopefully they’re right.  In response unions nationally are organizing massive demonstrations in Madison.  Union allies are laying out what remains of their fading capital, turning this into a potential last-ditch effort to halt their long slide into irrelevance.

The remaining Democrats in the Legislature have fled the state to break a quorum – which we know works out great. This is coming to resemble a union Alamo.  For the good of the country at large we need to make sure there is no San Jacinto for this movement.

One of the most crippling problems for government, particularly state and local governments, is the absurd clout of public employee unions.  Texas doesn’t experience much of this for a variety of historical reasons, but in states that were fully settled and developed by the early 20th century the union legacy is a serious obstacle to adaptation.

These organizations have outsized political influence because of their ability to turn out disciplined, motivated political volunteers financed in large part by public money (it’s part of the Goldwater Conundrum).  If you think corporate lobbyists are a corrosive influence on government spend some time with the unions.

In private industry unions are fading away because they starved their hosts and accomplished little for their members.  Whole industries which were saddled with powerful unions have shriveled up and blown away.  Unable to change at the speed of business because of the bureaucratic nightmare of a collective bargaining agreement, heavily unionized industries are in the final stages of extinction.  Outside of government, union membership has been a great way to eliminate your own job.

A union helps employees in fields where labor is fungible (any arm will do the same lifting) negotiate collectively to gain some basic dignity and humane working conditions.  This protection is vital for data analysts, teachers, clerical workers, nurses and other government employees because…well, help me here.  Their tiny fingers get caught in the machines?  Even FDR recognized the dangers of unionizing public employees.

Unions have done to government what they did to private sector businesses – made them fat, slow, and ineffective.  The civil service is rigid enough on its own.  Add unions and it becomes even worse.  Public jobs can’t be changed or eliminated when necessary.  Employees can’t be incentivized for outstanding performance – so you rarely get that kind of performance.  The power of public employee unions has over time transformed many critical jobs from public service to public subsidy.

This is a particularly important problem because government stands to play such a crucial role in our evolving economy.  That’s right, government stands to play a crucial role.  The problem is most visible in education where the state has an irreplaceable part to play and the unions have consistently crushed innovation to protect their narrow interests.

The political fight unfolding in Wisconsin (and coming soon in Ohio and other states) is not, as Democrats claim, an attack on the middle class.  It’s about making government work for the governed, not for special interests.

By extension, it will determine which states will be ready to grow, adapt, and thrive in the coming century and which ones will stagnate.  Places like Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin are making a choice whether to adapt to the 21st century or devolve into a giant post-industrial theme-park where people go to see what the “old days” were like.  Think of Colonial Williamsburg, but with rusted-out factories and empty houses.

How long can Democratic legislators hide out in Illinois?  Well, there’s a lot more entertainment in Chicago than there was in Ardmore.  But these standoffs seldom accomplish anything.  Let’s hope this standoff reaches its likely, successful conclusion soon.

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