Wisconsin and Public Unions -- Is It Time to Let Voters Decide?

President Obama calls Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to curtail the collective-bargaining rights of state employees an “assault.” But the real assault is the conspiracy that has existed for decades between elected officials and public-employee unions -- and taxpayers are the ones who wind up battered.

The unions get salaries, health benefits, and pensions far in excess of what the average taxpayer in the private sector earns. In exchange, the unions contribute huge amounts of money to the elected officials who agreed to these outrageous and fiscally bankrupting perks.

This history shows the unresolvable conflict of interest that exists between being a government employee and the member of a union. In fact, as Heritage analyst James Sherk explains, the only way for Wisconsin and other states to have responsible, fiscally sound government is to restore voters' control over their government and to depoliticize the civil service.

Unions have no “right” to bargain with the taxpayers over tax and spending decisions. There are no profits in government for unions to negotiate over.

In fact, unions are unneeded in the public sector. Government workers in Wisconsin are covered by some of the strictest civil service rules in the country. These rules, similar to those that protect federal workers, make it almost impossible to fire even incompetent employees. They enjoy far greater protections and job security than anyone in private employment.

Ironically, civil service rules were originally implemented to prevent the politicization of the government workforce. The events unfolding in Wisconsin illustrate graphically how unions undermine that purpose and inject politics into public employment.

When unions operate in the private sector, their demands for more money are offset by private management, whose interests include protecting shareholders and the viability of the company. Unions and corporate management have competing interests that help them work out the best deal for maintaining a stable and affordable workforce, while protecting the profitability of the company.

Individual consumers also have freedom of choice. If a company’s products or services become too expensive because the company has given in too much to union demands, or if consumers don’t like purchasing from unionized businesses, they can go elsewhere. The ability of the consumer to make such choices acts as a check on union demands.

But the political activity of unions makes collective bargaining in the public sphere untenable. Elected officials have no offsetting concerns, as corporate management does, when negotiating with public unions. In fact, the more public funds they give the union and its members, the more the unions will contribute to those same officials when they run for reelection. This is an inherent conflict of interest for elected officials.

Public-sector unions undermine representative democracy. Voters are not in full control of their government if their elected officials have such limited control over setting the proper wages and benefits for state employees. And if elected officials don’t agree to union demands, they often can be forced into binding arbitration, giving unelected arbitrators power over the tax and spending decisions of the government. That is not a sound democratic policy. Indeed, it is terrible that state laws ever sanctioned that crazy system, and the only responsible policy is to end it.

Additionally, unlike in the private economy, taxpayers cannot refuse to pay taxes because they believe that salaries and benefits given to government employees are excessive. Taxpayers cannot go elsewhere for the services they receive from government. They’re stuck paying taxes, and stuck having to depend on the government for services like driver’s licenses, garbage pickup, and the many other (often too many) services provided by state and local government. Taxpayers have no freedom of choice. Because of this legal monopoly, public unions have an unfair ability to paralyze the economy through strikes and force concessions to which they are not entitled.

It’s true that taxpayers have the option of trying to vote elected officials who engage in such behavior out of office. In fact, that is exactly what happened in Wisconsin. Scott Walker campaigned on this very issue and the profligate financial spending that has given the state a huge budget deficit and unsustainable human resources costs.

But now a minority of legislators -- who depend on public unions for their political support and political funds -- are engaging in anti-democratic behavior by fleeing the state to prevent the legislature from solving the state’s fiscal crisis. That’s something minority shareholders in a company cannot do. Such behavior violates their oath of office and their duty to uphold the Constitution and laws of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin does have a rarely used statute that the majority in the state senate should consider. Elected officials can be removed from office for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, official misconduct, or malfeasance in office.” It seems irrefutable that Democratic senators who have left the state, rather than carrying out their representational responsibilities, have neglected their duties in the Senate.

The other alternative is for lawmakers to split off the collective-bargaining changes from the changes in the pension and health care contributions of state employees. While appropriations bills require a 3/5 quorum to pass, non-spending bills only require a simple majority. So the Republicans have the number of legislators necessary to change the collective-bargaining rules, even if they lack the numbers needed to reduce the benefits.

Removing the senators who are neglecting their duties probably won’t happen. But removing the unjustifiable financial burdens and collective-bargaining restrictions that have been imposed on Wisconsin taxpayers by public-sector unions can be. It may be the only way to save the economic future of Wisconsin and restore representational democracy.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former career counsel at the Justice Department.