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Hard times, weak unions

Posted: June 14, 2012 10:00 a.m.
Updated: June 15, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Let’s give Wisconsin voters some credit. While others try to find easy right-vs.-left explanations for Gov. Scott Walker’s decisive victory, Badger State voters appeared to be worried less about politics than about their state’s purse.

That fiscal anxiety reflects a national trend. During the 1990s economic boom, state and local governments awarded generous health and pension benefits to union workers. Now the pensions and the rest are being paid from shrinking revenues in a sluggish economy. The result is a fiscal crisis in cities and states with deepening deficits and threats to public services, ranging from police and firefighters to parks and libraries.

Walker stands out among other deficit cutters only in his bold audacity, fortified famously by the billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch. Their family helped Walker get elected and become a national star among ultraconservatives opposed to public unions.

Instead of merely working with the unions, who offered to reduce state spending by raising their health care and pension fees, Walker moved shortly after he took office last year to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. His aim, applauded by the Kochs, was clear: break the unions and weaken their ability to raise money and turn out the vote on Election Day for Democrats.

All of that is well known. What should alarm union leaders is how little Walker’s overreaching got in the way of his 53 percent to 46 percent victory over his challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Exit polls showed union voters supported Barrett by a 71 to 29 percent margin anyway over Walker, but their coattails didn’t even reach deep into their own families. Barely half -- 51 percent -- of the non-member voters who live with a union member voted for Barrett. Voters with no union ties supported Walker by about 20 points.

And let’s not diminish the significance of Walker’s war chest. His campaign raised seven times as much money as Barrett’s, much of it from the same deep-pocket business interests that give to Republican “super PACs” in this presidential election year. Money talks and, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, it talks in today’s big league politics more than it ever did.

That reality does not bring me joy because I am not anti-union. I’ve even been an active member at various times in my checkered career. As the late Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to bemoan ironically, I appreciate what unions have done to make working-class Americans prosperous enough to vote Republican.

But Walker’s victory sends a message: public workers cannot rely on voters to be generous about pensions and other benefits when so many of their own wages and benefits are suffering.

On the day of Wisconsin’s recall, for example, voters in San Jose and San Diego decided to reduce retirement benefits for current and future city workers. The measures easily passed with two-thirds of the vote in San Diego and 70 percent in San Jose. With some California police and firefighters able to retire with up to 90 percent of their salary while private sector companies have been eliminating pensions, the voter backlash is not surprising.

Next door to Wisconsin, Illinois’s Gov. Pat Quinn wrestles with the nation’s largest unfunded pension liability, according to the Pew Center on the States. As a Democrat, he’s been trying to reduce the pensions of current Illinois workers without violating protections in the state’s constitution or excessively offending union leaders.

The same can be said for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to put a dent in the Windy City’s roaring pension liabilities by, among other changes, suspending annual automatic cost-of-living adjustments for retirees.

Providence, R.I., Mayor Angel Taveras recently negotiated a similar cost-of-living deal in a tentative agreement with union leaders -- and is keeping his fingers crossed as it awaits ratification by union members. So are a lot of taxpayers.

Wisconsin’s unions may have overreached by attempting a recall instead of trying to change the law, as Ohio voters did to overturn Republican Gov. John Kasich’s restrictive collective bargaining law. Recalls should be reserved for cases of official misconduct, not policy disagreements. Now Walker, as the first governor to survive a recall, looks like even more of a hero to the right’s union busters. That’s too bad, in my view. But he’s earned it.


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