Friday, June 8, 2012

Walker wins and FDR is vindicated

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker won handily in the recall election on Tuesday.  The unions tried to have him thrown out of office because he dared defy their powers.  

As I understand it, he cut government workers benefits, and when the unions tried to demonize him for it they discovered that the public wasn't too enamored with the extraordinary benefits of the union workers, and had at least some sympathy for Walker's claim that the benefits were bankrupting the state.  As a matter of fact, since the new rules on the government unions went into effect the state went from a massive deficit to a surplus.  

So, the unions decided to change the issue to Walker's denying the unions the right to collective bargaining, which Walker was hindering.  But, at the heart of the unions' complaint was that Walker was changing the rules on the unions' ability to collect union dues.  That is, the dues would no longer be automatically collected, and union membership would become voluntary.  As I understand it, once these new rules were enacted, union membership dropped by about half.  The result?  Loss of union power, which is what the recall effort was all about, union power.

The unions tried to wield their power, but lost power instead.  That is what happens in power plays - either you win or you lose, and the governmental unions lost.

The most interesting thing, to my mind, is to revisit the grandfather of modern liberalism's views on the role of collective bargaining of governmental unions - that of Franklin D Roosevelt himself.  In a letter to the National Federation of Federal Employees, written August 16, 1937, FDR made it very clear that collective bargaining had no place in public service of governmental employees. 

A couple of excerpts from this short letter:

"All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.... Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the function of any organization of Government employees... a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied.  Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable an intolerable."

Pretty clear - "unthinkable and intolerable."  

I'm not sure that the public employee unions have done much in the way of threatening strikes in Wisconsin or elsewhere, but they have been negotiating with politicians, Democrats especially, who have an incentive to give them what they want.  This is because the Government unions are the biggest supporters of pro-union politicians, i.e. Democrat politicians.  They give them both money and lots and lots of free labor to man phones and help them campaign in many ways.  

So, it is no wonder that the unions got so much of their demands on pensions.  Had they demanded large wage increases, those kinds of numbers could be publicized and used effectively as a tool to deny the government unions' demands.  But, pension improvements were just too arcane to be able to be turned into headlines or bumper stickers, so the unions got what they wanted. 

The problem is that the big pensions, granted to younger and younger retirees, are eating up the other government services in a time of recession like today.  Voters are seeing that libraries, parks, education, and public safety are suffering while the pensions sail along keeping middle class, middle aged people on the public dole for decades to come, at nearly the same wages as when they worked.

So, Wisconsin said no to the recall.  How did government unions stray so far away from FDR's vision? I don't see this so much as a victory for Republicans against Democrats or Republicans against unions.  I see this more as a needed balancing of something that was out of balance.