Union Cancer Goes for Broke

The cancer of public-sector unions fights back against fiscal chemotherapy.

Your body has a number of useful organs such as liver, kidneys, skin, and various glands.  They all have to work together to keep you healthy; each has its own needs and provides something the others require.

What you think of as "you" is actually a finely-honed balance between your various bits and pieces.  So long as no organ eats more than it should and provides the services it's supposed to, you stay healthy.  When the balance goes too far wrong, you die.

Cancer is one of those upsets.  Part of your skin, or a kidney, or your liver starts to grow without limit.  Although organs have to grow new cells to replace old cells, any organ that grows too much becomes a cancer which starves other organs and eventually kills you.

Much as a cancer ultimately destroys its host and then itself, we're seeing excessive greed and growth of public sector unions all across America and Europe.  By spending lots of money electing officials who'll be friendly to their interests, unions have pushed up public-sector pay and pensions to the point that many state and national governments face bankruptcy.

Realizing that unlimited spending would destroy our society, voters replaced union-friendly Democrats in state legislatures with Republicans during the 2010 election.  Having run on a platform of cutting state spending, which means spending less on state employees, Republican governors and state representatives are chopping union privileges.  To no one's surprise, the cancer is fighting back.

The Battle of Wisconsin

The fight erupted in Wisconsin, where the 14 remaining Democrats in the state senate violated their oaths of office and left the state.  The senate couldn't take up the budget without a quorum.  What was the law these public "servants" wanted to block?  The New York Times reports:

Among key provisions of Mr. Walker’s plan: limiting collective bargaining for most state and local government employees to the issue of wages (instead of an array of issues, like health coverage or vacations); requiring government workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pensions, much more than now; and requiring state employees to pay at least 12.6 percent of health care premiums (most pay about 6 percent now) …

In an unusual move, he would require secret-ballot votes each year at every public-sector union to determine whether a majority of workers still want to be unionized. He would require public-employee unions to negotiate new contracts every year, an often lengthy process.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants to cut the cost of state employees, a perfectly reasonable move considering the recession.  Almost all taxpayers have had to cut their spending, why shouldn't state employees take a pay cut too?

The prospect of a pay cut, which would put them closer to the hard-pressed taxpayers who support them, angered the teachers.  No surprise there - nobody likes to be kicked away from the public trough, and the deeper a group has their snouts embedded in the trough, the more they resent it.  As the Wall Street Journal put it:

For Americans who don’t think the welfare state riots of France or Greece can happen here, we recommend a look at the union and Democratic Party spectacle now unfolding in Wisconsin. Over the past few days, thousands have swarmed the state capital and airwaves to intimidate lawmakers and disrupt Governor Scott Walker’s plan to level the playing field between taxpayers and government unions...

Madison’s school district had to close Thursday when 40 percent of its teachers called in sick. So much for the claim that this is “all about the children.”  [emphasis added]

The governor has an opportunity for a Reagan moment - he can show from the TV coverage that the teachers weren't sick and fire them for fraud, just as Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers.  Do we really want teachers who show students they can break the law with no penalty?

The teachers weren't the only state employees who abandoned their posts. Hoping to placate the unions who had supported them for so long, the Democrats fled Wisconsin rather than listen to the voice of the electorate. By not going to their jobs at the statehouse, they prevented a legislative quorum, and thus blocked a vote on Walker's measure that they'd certainly lose.

Depending on the fine print of state law, Gov. Walker may be able to charge the truant Democratic senators with violating their oaths of office - after all, they're supposed to be doing the people's business when the legislature is in session, which they're willfully refusing to do.  That appears to be a felony under Wisconsin law, in which case he can issue warrants and extradition requests to force the neighboring states to arrest them and ship them back in chains.

Better yet, if convicted of a felony, Senators automatically lose their seats and are replaced in special elections.  Until those elections can take place, the seats would be vacant.  This would reduce the count needed for a quorum, letting the remaining Republicans do pretty much as they wish.  The question is, how much is Gov. Walker want to play hardball?

The Real Fight

After discussing the money, the Times explained why this such a pivotal struggle - union power is at stake.  The Washington Post went into detail:

What the unions and their supporters really fear is not the loss of benefits or even bargaining. Those provisions of Walker’s bill, though annoying, are not what has sent progressives into transports of incivility — mobbing the legislature; demonstrating outside Republican legislators’ homes; absconding to Illinois; closing schools through illicit teacher “sick-outs”; depicting Walker as Mubarak or Hitler; chanting “kill the bill”; lying about the governor’s alleged use of the National Guard …

No, what the public sector unions really can’t abide is the legislation’s requirement that public employees vote every year on union representation, coupled with an end to the automatic dues check-off on state paychecks. For the first time in decades, these organizations would actually have to prove on a regular basis that they’re voluntary; and they would have to collect their own political war chests, instead of relying on the government to extract the cash for them.  [emphasis added]

Re-read the sentence above - unions would have to prove by secret ballot that they're voluntary organizations instead of holding members by intimidation, and they'd have to prove that the services unions provide are worth the cost to the workers who pay the dues.

Instead of having dues taken out before workers even see their money, employees would have to actually write their own checks to the union, just as people write checks to the NRA or Wal-Mart - of their own free will, for services rendered that they personally consider to be worth the money.  How long would union members keep doing that once they could see just how much they were paying so that union bosses could live large at their expense without providing much in the way of benefits?  They'd probably be about as happy about that as ordinary taxpayers are in the fact that public employees live large at their expense.

When Mr. Obama was asked why he didn't discuss his plans with Republicans, he said, "I won."  Having just won the 2010 elections on a platform of slashing spending, the Republicans are in no mood to let the unions' good times roll.

Hot Air tells what’s at stake:

The standoff in Madison could become a seminal moment in American politics. At stake is control over public policy. Will that control go to the voters who rejected years of Democratic policies that brought huge budget deficits in Wisconsin thanks to pandering to public-sector unions, or to the unions who need to perpetuate those policies in order to get the cash necessary to wield power? Will Wisconsin have a representative government at all, or merely a rubber stamp for union bosses?

Greed is Universal

It's no surprise that the cancer got greedy enough to kill the society; greed is part of human nature.  Unfortunately, there is simply no way that our economy can pay the costs of the gold-plated union pensions and health care benefits which our rulers gave away in return for essentially nothing.  Not even General Motors - which, unlike any government, once actually made money providing things people wanted to pay for - could afford that burden.

There is no way these benefits can be paid, so they quite simply won't be paid.  The only issue is whether the cancer will see its approaching doom and moderate its demands.

If the unions submit to fairly drastic surgery, the states will survive.  If they don't submit to voluntary pruning, they'll go down anyway and take the taxpayers with them.

Either way, the pensions won't be paid.  The question is, will our society cut back the painful way, or the very very painful way?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments

The WSJ explains why it's such a critical fight for the union leadership - they HAVE to have automatic dues collection because lots of "members" don't pay voluntarily:


Labor historian Fred Siegel offers further reasons why unions are manning the barricades. Mr. Walker would require that public-employee unions be recertified annually by a majority vote of all their members, not merely by a majority of those that choose to cast ballots. In addition, he would end the government's practice of automatically deducting union dues from employee paychecks. For Wisconsin teachers, union dues total between $700 and $1,000 a year.

"Ending dues deductions breaks the political cycle in which government collects dues, gives them to the unions, who then use the dues to back their favorite candidates and also lobby for bigger government and more pay and benefits," Mr. Siegel told me. After New York City's Transport Workers Union lost the right to automatic dues collection in 2007 following an illegal strike, its income fell by more than 35% as many members stopped ponying up. New York City ended the dues collection ban after 18 months.

February 22, 2011 8:02 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...