LOS ANGELES — While not the Middle East, the Midwest dairy state of Wisconsin is quite familiar with vigorous politics.
A free state in the Civil War, its later political history encompassed “Fighting Bob” La Follette and the Progressive movement; Joe McCarthy, the anti-communist; and modern welfare reformer Tommy Thompson. Also, it birthed the modern public employee union movement some 80 years ago.
Now, as the Super Bowl euphoria for the Green Bay Packers fades, the state is capturing the nation’s attention with raucous budget and labor debates among teachers, Tea Party activists and outside political forces of the left and right. Recent conservative political momentum in Wisconsin has boosted Republicans dedicated to a growth agenda based on balanced budgets and fiscal reform of unsustainable federal and state entitlements programs.
These reformers are the heirs of Adam Smith, Frederik Hayek and Milton Friedman — God-centered economic philosophers who advocated liberty of conscience, personal autonomy over one’s own work product, private property and wealth creation through industry, savings and investment. And they believed that free markets produce jobs, consumer goods and services, scientific and medical invention, technological innovation, cleaner environments and an ever improving standard of living.
On the other hand, social Democrats impose wealth confiscation and redistribution of income, and rent, wage and price controls with perverse disincentives that result in shortages of housing or more welfare babies.
Academic (not real business world) elites on President Obama’s economic team gave us failed stimulus, patronage favors to supporters, rapidly rising federal deficits and debt, and the myth of Obamacare cost savings.
So, too, state officials year after year spent beyond revenues and signed off on lifelong retiree benefits for public workers. These commitments sit like bricks on the backs of younger workers and constrain future budgets with unfunded liabilities that compete with state funds for education, infrastructure or the new energy future.
U.S. citizens mostly work as free agents: artists, clerks and shopkeepers, construction workers and professionals. We are butchers, brewers and bakers. We make and produce and sell and discover and invent. But we pay more than half our income in local, state and federal fees and taxes while trying to save for retirement. We regard warily the Social Security system, now paying out more than it takes in as the baby boomers retire.
Private sector union membership has diminished. It enjoys hard won and admired rights to organize and negotiate, but higher wage input costs can risk union jobs. The United Auto Workers had to concede gains in the automotive industry bankruptcy reorganization.
Government employees — nearly half of all union workers now — are another case.
When President Kennedy’s executive order established limited collective bargaining rights for federal employees, it was widely seen as a political effort to assist his own Democrat Party. President Franklin D. Roosevelt two decades before Kennedy had been highly skeptical, asserting that “all government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
Americans don’t much like those who work for them to quit on the job or harm the public’s interest. President Truman confidently seized the railroads, President Nixon kept open the post offices and President Reagan fired striking federal air traffic controllers.
State public employees are protected by civil service workplace rules over wages, hours, fringe benefits, employee discipline and termination, and workplace safety. That’s fine.
“Collective bargaining” makes sense only when labor and management sit down and negotiate. But as President Roosevelt long ago recognized, there is a conflict of interest when public unions campaign for and against, vote for and against, befriend or threaten, fund and control the elected officials across the table, who are also public employees.
Government unions elect their bosses? Like FDR, taxpayers are asking: Exactly what kind of fair bargaining is this?
Eventually, then, taxpayers elect governors to reform lifetime pension benefit formulas based on spiked salaries and double dipping, yet not payable until their union-favored predecessors are long out of office. Some teachers have behaved badly, with fraudulent sick-outs, and Wisconsin’s fugitive 14 Democrat state senators disobeyed their oaths, essentially shutting the down the government.
Again, FDR: “Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of government employees.”
Polls show voters also have little sympathy for the public employee union bosses, who favor layoffs of state workers rather than their own diminished bargaining power or any reduction in compulsory union member dues.
As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker put it, “What changes is the fact that no longer can our unions have a stranglehold — not only on the state government but local government — to force them to not alter benefit packages that are like a virus eating up our budget.”
President Kennedy did understand the true meaning of public service, asserting “Ask not what you country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
It’s time to step up, public servants, to be worthy of that calling.
(Larry Greenfield is a fellow in American studies at The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.)