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To Reform Government at the State Level, We Must Start With the Unions

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has introduced sensible, long overdue reforms designed to give elected officials more flexibility to provide and deliver vital public services. Program control over important services such as education should be the province of governors and mayors, who are responsible to voters and taxpayers, not public unions whose leaders more often than not have a private agenda that is in direct conflict with popular will.

The governor's budget message Tuesday demonstrated just how urgent reform is. Public education in Wisconsin is slated for major budget reductions unless long overdue changes to state government are enacted. The changes focus not only on current labor costs but also require long term structural reforms in how the state delivers vital services such as education if Wisconsin is to eliminate its structural deficit and balance its budget.

That’s why it’s not just about having public sector workers pay SOMETHING toward their health care and retirement. Public sector pay IS higher than comparable pay in the private sector, the job security is greater and their outsized benefits do account for much of the budget gap that states all across the country, including Wisconsin, face. But that is only half the story. Enacting the fiscal steps necessary to balance the budget in the short term, but leaving the powerful unions in place will just guarantee that this crisis will be repeated again in the future.

Maintaining the status quo, with public unions having the power to collect compulsory dues and bargain on matters beyond wages, is incompatible with the needs of 21st century government which must be focused on changing programs and policies to adapt to a rapidly changing economic environment. It’s why, for instance, the private sector long ago abandoned defined benefit programs in favor of 401(k) plans. Yet public employee unions still fight this battle, even as it becomes clear that such indefinite commitments cannot be sustained by the taxpayers. Our state governments cannot take advantage of new technologies or reform ideas that make programs more efficient if public unions feel threatened by those changes.

There is no real “arms length” bargaining between a public union and a mayor or governor. The union has control over a vital monopoly. A public service, like education, can be shut down on a moment’s notice as we have seen in Wisconsin with teachers calling in sick en masse. Because of compulsory union dues, they have millions of dollars at their disposal to ensure the election of a more “cooperative” negotiating partner. It is rare to find officials like Walker and Chris Christie of New Jersey who will stand up for the taxpayers rather than just cave in to the union’s demands.

If you doubt that public unions are all about politics, just look at the spending in the 2010 election cycle. According to the Wall Street Journal, the biggest spender was not the Chamber of Commerce or some shadow right wing group, but rather the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME) with a total of $87.5 million (up from $19 million in 1998). The National Education Association (NEA) threw in another $40 million. Individual union members have minimal control over these vast sums that are extracted in compulsory dues. Virtually all of the money went to Democrats, though a good percentage of their members vote Republican. Now you know why all 14 Democratic state senators in Wisconsin up and ran to Illinois rather than grapple with the state’s budget problems. You also now know how seriously public unions approach the task of picking a suitable negotiating partner.

Public unions instinctively negotiate the best deal for themselves even if their goals are at variance with good public administration and program efficiency. Again, it should not be a surprise that teachers unions are the biggest impediments to reforming our broken and underperforming school systems. They oppose merit pay, charter schools, school choice and any meaningful attempt to weed out bad teachers. That makes their lives easier, but produces bad schools and poorly educated children. 

In the private sector, you have choices. So, if say, the United Auto Workers insist on unsustainable benefits and featherbedding, consumers will gravitate toward companies with better work rules and less costly products. It’s why non-union car companies have outsold Detroit for decades. Given our current school monopoly, choice is restricted to the very wealthy. The current system is good for the union, but bad for education.

If we are to hold our public officials accountable for budgets and spending, we must give them the flexibility and the power to deliver vital public services in the most efficient and cost effective manner possible. At least that’s the goal of consumers and taxpayers. It’s probably not the goal of the unions.

Frank Donatelli is chairman of GOPAC, the center for training and electing the next generation of Republican leaders.

Frank Donatelli is the Chairman of GOPAC, an organization dedicated to educating and electing a new generation of Republican leaders. He previously served as Political Director for President Ronald Reagan.