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Issue Analysis

Wisconsin Defenders of Status Quo Out of Touch with Reality

It was inevitable that attempts to trim government at the state-level as well as the federal level would offend some sensibilities.  What was not inevitable was that the offended parties would do such a poor job making their case.  In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Harold Meyerson resorted to hyperbole, comparing Wisconsin’s new governor, Scott Walker, to Hosni Mubarak and writing:

The real goal of the American right is to reduce public employee unions to the level of private-sector unions, which now represent fewer than 7 percent of American workers. Walker's proposal not only confines public-sector unions to annual bargaining over wage increases but restricts the increases for state employees to raises in the consumer price index and compels every such union to hold an annual membership vote to determine whether the union can continue to represent workers. It clearly intends to smash these unions altogether.

Naturally, the argument relies on the author’s assumption that, as unions have disbanded, it has had extremely negative consequences for American workers. But this is not necessarily true. Income inequality—the primary evidence cited by liberal commentators to justify redistribution—is not as extreme as the Census Bureau's statistics indicate and, to the extent that inequality does exist, the disparity does not affect the standard-of-living as much as it did in, say, 1900.

What is more interesting, though, is parsing the implications of the liberals’ arguments when they object to the reforms of conservative administrations.  No group would consider it fair to be represented by leaders who they did not elect to represent their interests, yet this is implicitly what Meyerson advocates when he condemns the reform bill for “compel[ling] every . . . union to hold an annual membership vote to determine whether the union can continue to represent workers.”

Individuals could quibble over the details of how frequently unions should hold elections to determine their leadership, but it is common sense to assert that they should hold elections to ensure that they are representative of the workers who constitute their membership, rather than just representative of the interests of the union leaders. For defenders of the status quo, any weakening of the influence of Big Labor is unacceptable (even as the unemployment rate hovers around 9.0% and public employees receive significantly higher compensation than employees in the private sector.)

A slight reduction in income—Governor Walker’s plan would result in a decrease of 8%--will not be easy for individuals who are accustomed to the set income they have had for years, but Governor Walker said it best: “Many of the companies [in the private sector] I went by . . . don’t have pensions, and the 401(k)s they have over the last year or two, they’ve had to suspend the employer contribution. So not a lot of sympathy from these guys in private-sector manufacturing companies who I think reflect a lot of the workers in the state who say what we’re asking for is pretty modest.” This time, everyone needs to adapt to a budgetary crisis—even public employees.