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Public Unions: A Bad Deal for the Public

Public Unions: A Bad Deal for the Public

By Jack Kelly - February 28, 2011

The violent imagery and uncivil rhetoric journalists have sought but rarely found at tea party rallies are in evidence in the protests in Madison, Wis., against Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to trim the power of public employee unions.

The New York Times likened them to the protests against Arab dictatorships. But Wisconsin is a democracy, not a Middle Eastern autocracy. Those who subvert democracy are those who would shut down the government to thwart the will of the people, as expressed at the polls in November.

Wisconsin is nearly bankrupt. There is a $137 million shortfall in the fiscal year that ends June 30 and a projected deficit of $3.6 billion for the two years after that.

The deficit cannot be closed without trimming the pay and benefits of public employees. In 2008, these accounted for half of all state and local government spending, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. If government workers were paid the same as equivalent private sector workers, no state would have a budget deficit, calculated blogger George Noga, a certified public accountant.

Gov. Walker wants public employees in Wisconsin to contribute roughly half as much, proportionately, to their health plans and pensions as do workers in the private sector. The governor also wants to restrict public employee unions to bargaining for wages only, leaving the health and benefit packages and work rules up to elected officials to decide. And he wants the state to stop collecting dues for the unions, and to require them to win recertification elections each year.

If local governments in Wisconsin could make changes in these areas, Mr. Walker says they could save about $1.44 billion in the next biennium. That's critical, because the 57 percent of the budget that goes to aid to local governments already has to be slashed to close the $3.6 billion hole.

Without such flexibility, the only way state and local governments can control costs is to lay people off. One Wisconsin school district has sent preliminary layoff notices to a third of its teachers. Mr. Walker estimates that if his bill doesn't pass, up to 12,000 state and local government workers would get the ax.

The protesting public employees in Madison now say they are willing to meet Mr. Walker's demands on wages and cost-sharing for health care, but not on changes to collective bargaining aimed at keeping their wages and benefits under control down the road.

This is "an assault on unions," said President Barack Obama of Gov. Walker's plan.

That's true. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president most favorable to industrial trade unions, would have stood with Mr. Walker.

"Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself," FDR said in 1937. "The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service."

There's a critical difference between private sector unions and public employee unions, noted liberal Time magazine columnist Joe Klein: "Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed ... of the public?"

The primary reason public employee unions are a bad idea is because politicians pay them off with our money. These unions receive billions from taxpayers, who in return contribute millions to the politicians who gave them those billions.

This is a good deal for teachers in Milwaukee Public Schools, who this year will receive an average of $100,000 in pay and benefits for nine months work.

Milwaukee teachers aren't getting the big bucks because they've been doing a crackerjack job. In its ranking of the 100 worst performing schools in America, NieghborhoodScout found that eight were in Milwaukee.

Students in Milwaukee public schools perform half as well as the state average in most measures of academic achievement. And the state average isn't so great. Two thirds of Wisconsin's eighth-graders can't read proficiently, according to the National Assessment for Education Progress. This despite the highest per pupil spending in the Midwest.

Public employee unions are now among the biggest spenders in our elections, which is a good deal for the politicians who hand them our money. But it's a terrible deal for the rest of us.

As Mr. Klein wrote, far too many state legislatures "have been cowed by the political power of the unions and enacted contracts that force state and city governments to be run for the benefit of their employees, rather than for their citizens."

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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