Saturday, February 26, 2011
We have recently been treated to editorials, op-ed columns, and letters-to-the-editor fulminating about legislation Wisconsin Republicans are trying to enact. Governor Scott Walker, who proposes to reduces the privileges and scope of bargaining of state employee unions, seemingly is a prime candidate for the national ogreship.
Columnist Tim Rutten, for example, accuses Walker of enacting “a series of tax breaks that eliminated what would have been a budget surplus” and using the resulting deficits as an excuse to attack the unions. Numbers do matter, however, and the tax reductions in question were a tiny fraction of the several billion dollars Wisconsin will soon be in the red if something drastic isn’t done. If Rutten’s claim were true, the unions would hardly agree to the wage and fringe benefit concessions that they have said they will accept.
Apparently union leaders are less concerned with protecting members’ wages than they are with protecting the income received from members’ dues. The governor proposes to stop automatic withholding of union dues from state employee salaries. When this was done temporarily in New York City, after an illegal transit strike, union income fell about 35%.
It is strange to denounce as anti-labor a measure that would merely make payment of dues voluntary rather than compulsory. If unions are beneficial to their members, do the critics think they are too stupid to know their own interests?
If Governor Walker is an ogre, what about Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of modern labor law in the U.S? Roosevelt felt that collective bargaining by government employees would be a horrible idea. Government employees were pointedly not included when the National Labor Relations Act was written during the 1930s.
Unlike private employees, whose employers risk bankruptcy if they pay higher wages than they can afford, government workers have no incentive to be reasonable in their wage demands. Their work cannot be outsourced to China. We have therefore been moving towards a two-class society, with government workers protected from many of the dangers afflicting private workers. Many have even received taxpayer-financed raises while most other workers are hurting.
Nobody likes salary reductions. If I were a government employee, I would be just as unhappy as anybody about it. But something has to give, and unfortunately public employees are the next in line to take a hit. Either their wages and fringe benefits will be reduced, or a large number of them will be laid off. If layoffs were based on a lottery rather than seniority, one can bet that their willingness to allow fellow workers to be thrown to the wolves would be greatly reduced.
If Governor Walker’s proposals are implemented, however, there is one way public workers can mitigate reductions in their income. We are told that union dues in Wisconsin now range from $500 to $1000 a year (the latter amount for teachers). Those who prefer to stop paying union dues can thus reduce the decrease in their disposable income without having to negotiate it with anyone.
Wisconsin’s troubles are not unique. Oregonians should observe how things turn out in Wisconsin and see if that gives us any ideas we can use here.