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02.23.11

Wisconsin's 'Anti-Union' Hysteria

Liberals' rage at "dictator" Gov. Scott Walker's fight is spreading from Wisconsin to Indiana. John Avlon on how the battle is obscuring the real issue—public-sector unions' impact on the budget crisis.

On Thursday, the Wisconsin House agreed to vote on the union bill, though senators remain missing. But liberals' rage at "dictator" Gov. Scott Walker's fight is spreading to other states, including Indiana. John Avlon on how the battle is obscuring the real issue—public-sector unions' impact on the budget crisis. Plus, see The Daily Beast’s rundown on the next 15 states going to war with the unions.

The Wisconsin protests are proving that the era of unhinged politics is not over. If anything, the hyperpartisan hysteria seems to be catching, with Democratic lawmakers in Indiana running for the hills while a new round of union protests swamps the statehouse in Ohio.

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It’s an unwelcome recurrence of politics being treated as apocalypse. Neither side is innocent, but on matters of both style and substance, the left is coming out of this debate looking worse.

We’ve certainly seen a full range of left-wing-nuttery at the protests, from the obligatory Nazi/Hitler comparisons on signs to Democratic elected officials getting into the overheated action. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) declared his solidarity with the mob, saying “every once in a while you need to get out on the streets and get a little bloody when necessary,” while the esteemed Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) said, “There is an unbelievable parallel and a real connection that I can readily identify with the people in the streets of Cairo and Madison, Wisconsin.” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) just cut to the chase and called Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker a “dictator.”

To top off the ugliness, there has been a mini-Twitter rampage of kindly folks calling for Walker’s death. They’ve forgotten about Gabby Giffords pretty fast, and the outrage should be more widespread than it’s been to date. But too often, situational ethics is the operative mode in politics, causing partisans to excuse the inexcusable as long as it comes from their side. The attitude seems to be “they may be crazy, but they’re our crazies.”

To top off the ugliness, there has been a mini-Twitter rampage of kindly folks calling for Walker’s death. They’ve forgotten about Gabby Giffords pretty fast

Cut through all the special-interest spin and you’ve got a real debate about the role that public-sector unions have in the budget deficits that are bankrupting cities and states.

Public-sector unions reflexively call any proposed reduction in money or power “anti-union.” They could also be fairly described as “pro-taxpayer.”

Like many governors across the country, Scott Walker came into office facing a multibillion-dollar budget gap—$3.4 billion over two years. As part of the needed dose of fiscal discipline, he followed through on a campaign promise to get government workers to put some money toward their pensions and increase contributions for their health-care package. Democrats reluctantly agreed. But then Walker insisted on something more—a curtailing of collective bargaining. The unions acted like war had been declared and Democratic legislators escaped the state seeking to delay the vote.

“Walker is trying to do more than just balance this year’s budget with his proposals. He’s trying to give himself tools to more easily manage the budget throughout his entire tenure,” said Steven Malanga, author of the new book Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer.

“He wants the same flexibility the president of the United States has on managing compensation going forward. Federal workers have fewer collective-bargaining rights than what Walker is proposing in Wisconsin,” said Malanga, who noted that the president’s proposed five-year pay freeze on federal workers would be essentially impossible to enact with collective bargaining. “It’s very difficult to manage a governmental budget or any kind of a budget when you have the kind of restrictions that have been imposed by some of these union contracts.”

Let’s fill out the picture with some facts. Nearly 40 percent of government workers are unionized, compared with 7 percent in the private-sector work force. The average state and local government employee now makes 46 percent more in combined salary and benefits than his private sector counterpart does, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Four of five public-sector workers have lifetime pensions. State and local governments owe more than $1.5 trillion in unfunded health-care and non-pension benefits, according to one estimate by Credit Suisse. This isn’t going to end pretty.

The city of Vallejo, California, went bankrupt in 2008 because it was spending 74 percent of its $80 million budget on public-sector salaries and benefits. After five years, all workers were entitled to lifetime health benefits.

New York City’s average public-sector salaries and benefits have increased 63 percent since 2000. The Big Apple now spends more on firefighter pensions than it does for active-duty firefighter salaries.

And if you’re looking for a side-by-side comparison of the costs of collective bargaining, look no further than the D.C. suburbs of Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland—captured in this analysis by the notoriously conservative Washington Post: “Virginia law denies public employees collective-bargaining rights; that’s helped Fairfax resist budget-busting wage and benefit demands… By contrast, Montgomery leaders were badly equipped to cope with recession.”

So despite reactions from the left that make it seem as if Walker is trying to kill Christmas, it is entirely reasonable to debate public-sector union collective bargaining—especially when we’re looking at looming budget deficits. In fact, liberal icons like FDR and Fiorello La Guardia were deeply opposed to collective bargaining for public-sector unions. “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” Roosevelt wrote.

Collective bargaining for public-sector unions began in the late 1950s and exists for all government workers in only 26 states. It is not sacrosanct or even particularly longstanding. Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels suspended collective bargaining on his first day on the job, six years ago, by executive order. The state of Indiana has not imploded.

In the spirit of “follow the money,” there’s an additional issue: public-sector union check-offs, which automatically deduct a portion of unionized government workers’ salaries and direct them to union coffers. In the case of the two national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the check-offs amount to $2 billion a year, a portly portion of which goes to campaigns and ballot initiatives. This is taxpayer money being automatically redirected to partisan politics to advance special-interest aims. I would much rather have that money remain in the workers’ wallets or given back to the taxpayers to curtail other cuts in a time of multibillion-dollar budget gaps.

All-or-nothing negotiation techniques rarely bring out the best in a democracy, and reasonable people can conclude that Gov. Walker is overreaching. But to behave as though public-sector union costs, which are directly related to collective bargaining, do not have a deep impact on state and local budgets is not to deal with reality. Public-sector unions are politically powerful, but the benefits they have secured for their members simply cannot be sustained. Civic debates are derailed when special interests resort to fear-mongering. Math does not have a partisan bias. We are going broke, and doing nothing is not an option. Start from that premise, and then let’s reason together.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.