June 7, 2012
By James Sherk
Last night, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did what no governor facing a recall election had done before: He won. Walker's victory came just over a year after he curbed the collective bargaining powers of Wisconsin's government unions. Having seen the reforms in action, voters decided they liked them.
Walker's reforms prevented unions from hijacking government to serve their interests. While private-sector unions bargain over the profits their members help create, government unions bargain with elected officials over how to spend taxes.
They are also the most well-financed special interest group in America. When they can use their clout to elect sympathetic politicians, they control both sides of the bargaining table, raising taxes to pay for inflated government benefits. Before Walker's reforms, government employees in Wisconsin made 30 percent more than they would in the private sector.
By restricting collective bargaining, Walker eliminated the ability of government unions to say "no" to more reasonable benefit packages. The voters' elected representatives could decide where to spend without needing the union's sign-off. This enabled him to close his states' deficit without laying teachers off and without raising taxes. It's not surprising voters liked what they saw.
Walker also made government unions accountable to their members. He provided government employees with the opportunity to vote on re-electing their union. Previously, unions remained certified indefinitely, even if they had been organized decades ago. Walker also made paying union dues voluntary, letting government employees decide for themselves whether they wanted to join.
Union leaders hated these reforms; given the choice, over half of their members quit. However, these changes were overwhelmingly popular among union members themselves. They may have been why Walkers' support among union members actually increased from his first election.
The labor movement itself once thought that collective bargaining had no place in government. They believed government should answer only to the voters' elected representatives.
In 1959 the AFL-CIO's Executive Council declared, "In terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress—a right available to every citizen." That was the same year Wisconsin became the first state to collectively bargain with its employees.
After a half-century of experience, Wisconsin's voters concluded that unions had it right the first time. Government should serve the public, not the other way around.
James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at
The Heritage Foundation.
This article first appeared on U.S. News and World Report.
Research Fellow, Labor Economics
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