When news first broke that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was tackling his state’s looming $3.6 billion budget deficit by taking on the big public-service employee unions, I was stunned by the headlines.
I was traveling at the time and monitoring the news. From the reports, it appeared that Scott Walker was planning to abolish public-employee unions and end their ability to engage in collective bargaining.
Digging through the headlines, however, I found that the facts were significantly different. Walker was not abolishing any union, nor was he abolishing collective bargaining.
Under his proposal, employees would continue to have the right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining for wages. However, he sought an exemption from the union’s ability to collectively bargain for pension and health benefits.
In Wisconsin these fringe benefits were costing taxpayers enormously — $733 million in fiscal 2010 — and generous benefits have helped drive the state close to bankruptcy.
The unions had claimed that they were willing to make concessions. But their words belied their actions.
As Walker pointed out on "Meet the Press," state employee unions throughout Wisconsin were attempting to rush through sweetheart contracts at the local level, before his proposal was enacted into law.
I personally favor unions. On the whole they have improved life in America. American companies have reacted to strong unions by developing better employee practices and more worker-friendly environments. All of this has been for the better.
While the number of workers in unions has fallen dramatically, at the same time public-service employee unions have grown and become more powerful. There is clear evidence that they have become too powerful.
A recent study by USA Today found that workers in 41 states make $18,000 a year more than their private sector counterparts. In California, public employee union compensation was an incredible 28 percent above the government rate of inflation over the past decade.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Wisconsin teachers make 74.2 cents in retirement and health benefits for every dollar they earn in salary, compared to 24.3 cents in the private sector.
It used to be a mantra that if you worked for the civil service you got less pay than from the private sector, but you received a good pension and job security. It seemed like a fair bargain. But somehow the scales have tilted completely in favor of public service employees to the detriment of taxpayers, who are facing the need to pay off debt loads for the next generation.
One proposal to deal with the public employee unions has been put forth by David Horowitz, who heads the David Horowitz Freedom Center in Los Angeles.
Horowitz has suggested that we should have a federal law that would make it illegal for federal public-service employee unions to make donations to influence elections. He notes that there is an inherent conflict of interest if public-service employees can financially back candidates who in turn will give them fat contracts.
At the same time, Horowitz argues that corporations that receive more than 50 percent of their revenues from dealings with the federal government should be banned from making contributions, including donations from their employees, to federal campaigns. It seems like a fair proposal and one that could also be enacted at the state level.
Unions are not evil. It’s when they become too powerful and presumptive of wages and benefits that they pose a danger to a competitive private sector or to the public one. Taxpayers deserve a fair and equitable playing field.
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