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Wisconsin Unions vs. Governor Walker: A Battle for the Soul of America

It is hard to overstate what is at stake in the dramatic showdown between Wisconsin’s teachers and their Republican governor and legislature. The political and economic course of our country hinges on how the issue of public-sector unions is resolved, in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

For the sake of our country’s political and economic future, Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues need to prevail in the current contest with the Wisconsin teachers’ union and their allies.

That isn’t easy for me to say. As an educator, I have great respect for all those (and they are many) in my chosen profession who capably and even brilliantly serve our nation’s youth. The fact is, though, that the status quo is untenable.

The budget crunch isn’t merely a projected crisis some 30 years in the future. Right now, several state and local governments are careening toward fiscal disaster. There are many factors, of course, but a major one is that retirement plans for public-sector workers are spectacularly underfunded, perhaps by as much as $3 trillion nationwide.

Governor Walker is being cast as the ogre for proposing to avert the onrushing flood of red ink, but the blame properly belongs to his predecessors who made unaffordable and unkeepable promises. All but the most zealous ideologues will admit that you can’t spend what you don’t have, and even some Wisconsin teachers are now indicating a willingness to help balance the state’s budget by contributing more to their pension and health benefits.

Politically, this battle is the ultimate partisan clash. Unions and the Democratic Party are joined at the hip. Unions collect mandatory dues from their members, then contribute massive financial and human support to the electoral campaigns of their political allies (overwhelmingly Democrats). Democrat office-holders repay these favors by granting unions generous legislated benefits, both monetary and in the form of rules that strengthen the political power of union officials. Wisconsin’s Democratic senators took the extraordinary step of fleeing the state in what appears to be a desperate ploy to preserve the flood of union money coming to them, while Republicans seem every bit as hopeful of reducing the flow of tax dollars to their political opponents.

Indeed, it is the use of tax dollars to lobby for more government spending, and thus for more taxes, that is the crux of the problem. Public-sector unionism is the ultimate conflict of interest, because the necessary objective of these unions is to capture control of the very legislatures that vote on their compensation packages.

Even the strongly pro-union Franklin Roosevelt believed that key tactics employed by private-sector unions were inappropriate for workers on the public payroll. In his words, “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service” due to “distinct and insurmountable limitations.”

I share FDR’s conviction that, in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, those who work for the government must be servants of the people. When public-sector unions threaten to withhold their services unless the taxpayers, through their elected representatives, pay up, it creates a process of political extortion by which the majority of citizens is made subservient to the public-employee minority. This is the way things work under feudalism or socialism, but is the exact inverse of the proper order in a truly democratic republic.

Some have called the Republican proposals in Wisconsin “union busting.” This is inaccurate. Walker is proposing to reform unions, not to abolish them. He seeks to make the payment of union dues voluntary instead of compulsory.

If teachers believe that what the union leadership is doing is worthwhile, they can continue to support those activities through voluntary contributions. If, on the other hand, Republican teachers would rather not contribute to Democratic candidates, they could follow their conscience and opt out. In a democratic republic, people should be free from being coerced into supporting candidates and causes to which they are opposed.

What is really at stake in the Wisconsin donnybrook is whether individual liberty or government power has the upper hand in our country. We are witnessing a battle for the soul of the republic.

(© 2011 Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson)


Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
  • Mark,

    Thanks so much for posting this. We certainly aren’t having any fun here in Wisconsin! It’s good to see someone out-of-state speak up.

  • Reagan’s firing of the air flight controllers in 1981 was one union in response to one particular threat to government operations. Gov. Walker’s plan is so much broader. His attack on collective bargaining per se strikes at the heart of organized labor, the distinction between the public and private sector notwithstanding.

    Today unions in the USA are on the ropes. If union busting succeeds, it can only hurt the worker further, who already faces exploitation by multinational corporations, who love to automate workers out of jobs, and outsource work which they can’t automate.

  • goral

    The unions always misrepresent their position and purpose, yes, always!

    Collective bargaining is not what is being threatened here. Collective bargaining for wages will remain and will be voluntary so that unions will have to demonstrate the same responsibility and accountability that everyone in the private sector must live by.

    Unchecked collective bargaining in the public sector is in effect the taxpayer’s credit card given to the unions and gov’t., without a limit.
    There is no incentive for either to stop running up the balance.

    What ranger Walker wants to do is to make sure that the slice of the pie is kept smaller than half of the pie, otherwise it’s no longer a slice.

    To compare this action to collective bargaining in the private sector is another misrepresentation.
    Of course unions can be a positive force in changing the climate of jobs being exported abroad.
    What they will not admit is that jobs are being moved out of state, remaining at home, to allow companies to remain competitive internationally.

    Walker just wants to put a limit on the public’s credit card. The unions want to maintain the status quo because it works so well for their short term economic gains and long term political gains.

  • 21cents

    Mandatory union dues, which are paid by workers, are not and can not be used for political contributions. This is illegal. Contributions for political parties or candidates from unions come from voluntary contributions.

    If you believe that a person has the right to work at a place where the majority of the employees have voted to be represented by a union, and not join the union, and pay dues, then would it not also be justly fair for those who work at non-union shops to be represented by a union if they so desire, even if the majority of workers vote against it?

  • goral

    “The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) spent in excess of $50 million during the 2010 campaign, part of which will fund “a massive incumbent protection program,” according to Gerry McEntee, president of the union. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spent $44 million in total on its 2010 election program. The union spent $85 million on its 2008 campaign, according to union officials.”
    http://www.examiner.com/american-government-in-fargo

    It is illegal for union dues to be used for political contributions, directly. Please tell me then, where the contributions come from since unions create no capital.
    Furthermore, why pour millions into political contributions?! Because, that’s the way the game is played.
    As I said, the unions always misrepresent their position. It’s about political power and not the worker.

  • 21cents

    As I said, the contributions are voluntary. I am a member of the UAW, and one of or councils is known as CAP (Community Action Prorgram). Through this council is where our political contributions come from. If the members so choice to, which I don’t, they may have donations taken from their pay check and directed to the CAP Council. The council also has many fundraisers throughout the year such as golf outings or raffles.

    I am quite aware of the many problems within the unions, and I share your frustration. But when false statements are said against anyone, we are supposed to correct.