Irony is not lost on history. In 1959 in Madison, Wis., a group of union organizers formed the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the first public employee union in the United States. Prior to that time, the man whose actions resulted in more private sector unionization than any other president – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – had forbidden public employee unionization, arguing (quite correctly) that it could interfere with the orderly delivery of public services. Shortly after AFSCME was formed, another Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, gave the green light for federal public employee unions to form.
Today, Madison is ground zero in a war between public employee unions and state and local governments teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The newly elected governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, is putting it all on the line to reverse the trend of unsustainable pension, wage, and health care benefits “negotiated” in the past between the unions and previous governors. Walker fully comprehends what Roosevelt also knew: if public sector unions are allowed to make demands of officials they are instrumental in electing, the taxpayers may effectively have no one at the table looking out for their rights.
Walker has been called a lot of things by the protesting unionists – Hitler, Mubarak, Mussolini – but he has not abandoned his stand. The House and Senate in Wisconsin have strong Republican majorities that were elected last November on a platform of stopping the fiscal madness that had been emanating from Madison. Elections have consequences, as President Obama coldly reminded Republicans in Congress shortly after his inauguration. Obviously some Democrats believe that elections have consequences only when Democrats win. Some 14 Democratic senators bolted Wisconsin for Illinois to prevent a quorum in an attempt to stop Walker’s legislation from passing. (A similar tactic is being used by Democrats in Indiana to prevent the passage of a Right-to-Work law that the unions oppose in that state.)
Delaying tactics aside, this issue is not going to go away. All across America, state and local governments are slashing services because their hands are tied in trying to deal with ever-escalating personnel costs. For example, in Michigan, the Detroit public school system has been ordered to close half of its public schools. Personnel costs are among the biggest budget items in any enterprise, including government. Unfortunately, in many places collective bargaining agreements prevent those items from being on the table when addressing budget deficits.
The war in Wisconsin will not remain there. In Ohio, the Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature have filed a bill even more far-reaching than Wisconsin’s when it comes to addressing collective bargaining with public employee unions. Other states will follow. The public employee unions – by their demands and tactics – are doing little to engender support among voters and taxpayers.
The fact that this process is starting in the upper Midwest that was the cradle for public employee unionization may be ironic but not surprising. In the state, local, and congressional elections last November, incumbent Democrats – many supported and funded heavily by public employee unions – were defeated in droves in that region. Now it is the taxpayers’ turn to have their voices heard and their fiscal frustrations relieved.
The fight song for the University of Wisconsin in Madison contains these lines: “On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin! Raise her glowing flame. Stand fellows now, let us salute her name.”
In state after state where fiscal insanity – in part brought about by runaway public sector collective bargaining – as run amok, many elected officials may soon be saluting the names of Wisconsin and Scott Walker.