Union Armageddon in Wisconsin

In the first big test for the new wave of Republican lawmakers elected last November, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is staring down a genuine revolt against his attempts to cut spending in the state. A recently introduced bill in the state legislature would force state employees to contribute 6% of their pay to their pension plans (vs. essentially nothing currently) and 12% to their health premiums (vs. 6% currently). It would also remove collective bargaining rights on everything except wages for all government workers except firemen and law enforcement.

It’s hardly surprising that the bill is facing strong opposition from Democrats, but the situation has recently escalated far beyond the norm for political dissent. Since the Republicans control both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, Democrats are completely unable to block the bill from passing. Rather than thunder against the bill while helplessly seeing it sail through, they have resorted to the tactic of fleeing the state. By law, state representatives must respond to a call of the house, but if they leave the state it becomes impossible for state law enforcement to enforce such a motion. While legislators leave the state, tens of thousands of union workers (particularly teachers) and their supporters have amassed in Madison for constant protests against the bill.

Dartmouth’s own trustee Peter Robinson provides a good take on the whole matter over at Ricochet.com. As he points out, state legislators who have fled the state and the many public sector workers who are taking absentee days to go protest are essentially robbing the state’s taxpayers by continuing to draw salaries while protesting against the government those same taxpayers elected. They are also failing to fulfill their key purpose of serving the public.

Another good perspective is offered by law professor Stephen Bainbridge, who discusses the numerous flaws that make public sector unions undesirable, even if one views private sector unions positively. As he ably demonstrates, public sector unions have the ability to distort the political process and, essentially, elect their own bosses, which allows the union to distort the labor market by essentially negotiating with itself. Since the government cannot go out of business, employees can coast along on grossly inflated compensation with little fear of seeing their job disappear. The taxpayer, alas, is left to foot the bill.

Just how this fight will end remains up in the air. The unions and their supporters have put on an impressive show of power, but the stunt of deliberately shutting down the state’s schools and deliberately derailing Wisconsin’s process of republican government seem unlikely to win them much respect in the long run. If Walker and the Republican caucus can tough it out, they will likely be able to win a major victory against the nation’s broken system of public employee compensation.

— Blake Neff