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Public Unions Organize Against Their Fellow Citizens

Some have compared Wisconsin union protesters to the recent Egyptian street demonstrators. Superficial similarities aside, the comparison misses the point. Egyptians protested against a dictator. Union leaders protest against taxpaying citizens.

Government unions are a different breed than their private-sector counterparts. No raging conservative, Time Magazine editor Joe Klein captured the distinction well: “Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed… of the public?”

Granting government workers union bargaining privileges was unheard of more than 50 years ago. The reliably pro-labor Democratic Party icon Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the deep flaws in the model. During his presidency FDR argued against the notion of public-sector unionism, famously asserting “that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

In 1959 Wisconsin became the first state to break the mold and authorize state and local workers to bargain. Direct access to public employee paychecks has strengthened union leaders’ hands to influence the elections of those with whom they negotiate for more privileges and funds from the public till.

Today, the Badger State is on track to seriously rein in the trend it unleashed just over half a century ago. For more than 50 years the unionized share of the private sector workforce has declined, as labor leaders have focused on growing their public sector membership Ń especially in the 34 states that mandate the practice. While fewer than one in five employees nationally work for government, unionized public sector workers today make up a majority of the American labor movement.

At its core, Wisconsin’s Senate Bill 11 is an attempt to fix a looming $3.6 billion budget hole. Democratic legislators in exile have offered to capitulate on eminently reasonable proposals to increase government workers’ retirement and health insurance contributions from almost nothing to a little. Three more fundamental structural changes to limit union power and give local elected officials more flexibility have earned union leaders’ strenuous opposition.

First, SB 11 seeks to limit collective bargaining negotiations to the topic of worker salaries. Total negotiated pay increases above the inflation rate would be subject to local voter referendum. The power of arbitrators to reward unions for lavish proposals would be neutralized. A system with greater accountability to the taxpaying public would take its place.

Second, no longer would a heavy legal burden of proof rest on government workers who wish for new, or no, union representation. SB 11 would require an annual affirmative opt-in to continue a union’s status as exclusive bargaining representative. The simple majority vote of affected workers would greatly bolster union claims that they operate democratically.

Since the silence of Colorado law allows governments to opt whether to bargain with unions on their own terms, the first two union proposals would not work so well here. Local officials already have a lot of discretion.

The third item, however, is not inextricably linked to the union negotiating process. The bill would prohibit government agencies from collecting union dues through member payroll deductions. Following the lead of Colorado’s citizen-initiated Amendment 49 (sponsored by the Independence Institute and defeated by millions in union contributions), it would end the cycle of using government resources to raise funds that are then used to reward political candidates and perpetuate union power.

The proposals championed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans would not wash away workers’ rights. Rather, they would open the door to fiscal sustainability by providing greater flexibility to elected government officials and restoring some power and accountability to taxpaying citizens. Wisconsin is receiving a large share of attention for good reason: A few states are following suit, and others soon may jump in.

An identical repeat in Colorado is off the table. But given our own budget crunch, local school boards and city councils should consider re-thinking negotiated policies that empower union interests over the public interest.

Ben DeGrow is education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Golden-based libertarian think tank. This column is adapted from the author’s original submission to the Education News Colorado blog (blog.ednewscolorado.org).

This article originally appeared in the Denver Daily News on March 4, 2011.