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Yesterday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker triumphed in his bare-knuckles recall rematch with Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. The result serves, fairly or not, to validate Walker’s push to dial back the scope of collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin.
In the blue-tinged cradle of American Progressivism, Walker held off a ferocious labor onslaught. He did so with the aid of more than $40 million raised from conservatives who saw Wisconsin as their must-win battle in the effort to tame the reach of public unions. Walker’s win comes on the heels of Republican success in blunting last summer’s Democratic attempt to recall senators who lent crucial support to Walker.
It all means that it’s a great morning to be a school reform-minded GOP governor, and a lousy day to be Randi Weingarten, Dennis van Roekel, or any American labor leader. As MSNBC reported, “Walker’s win served as a symbolic victory for a generation of reform-minded conservatives…Conversely, the outcome in Wisconsin was a galling disappointment to Democrats and labor groups that had vowed to seek the Republican governor’s ouster over the collective bargaining law.”
Walker is about to skyrocket to prominence in the conservative firmament, and several Republican governors are about to discover a new appetite for challenging public employee unions. A Walker defeat, on the other hand, would’ve been a crippling blow.
My take? As I wrote in February 2011, I stand squarely with Walker on this one. His push was necessary and appropriate. As I wrote at the time, “Public employee unions…are unchecked by the competitive constraints and self-interested ownership that help to balance out private sector unions. In…Special Interest, for instance, Stanford’s Terry Moe points out that the Michigan Education Association has distributed a 40-page instructional manual for local leaders that’s entitled ‘Electing Your Own Employer, It’s as Easy as 1, 2, 3.’ And as one high-ranking state union official told me when I wrote Revolution at the Margins, ‘We knew the school system wasn’t moving to Mexico,’ so there was no reason to work with the state negotiator on establishing a prudent salary structure.”
Later that month I noted, “Wisconsin’s public employees collect 74 cents in benefits for every dollar in salary, more than triple the rate for their private sector counterparts. In Milwaukee, the average ten-month salary for a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher is $56,500 but the total cost to MPS is $100,005. Why? For one thing, the Wisconsin state pension calls for a 6.8% employer contribution and a 6.2% employee contribution, but MPS agreed back in 1996 to pay the employee share as well. For another, the 1982 collective bargaining agreement also grants MPS teachers a second pension, funded entirely by a 4.2% district contribution. As for health care, MPS spends 39% of wages on health insurance, compared to a private-sector norm of 11%. MPS pays the full premium for medical and vision benefits and also grants full health care to retirees, with the district picking up the entire premium in effect at retirement.”
Officials steer so much money into benefits that do little to improve schooling because benefit costs are long-term and largely invisible to taxpayers, while they satisfy the demands of political, influential union leaders. Like sugar subsidies or pet Pentagon pork, this makes benefit giveaways as tempting as catnip to policymakers in Madison or Milwaukee. It’s just too easy for state and local officials to shovel out the goodies, when public employee and their union leaders appreciate it and no one else will notice.
I argued, “While politically attractive, these benefits are an awful way to spend scarce money. Retirement benefits and massively subsidized health care aren’t much use in recruiting young educators in the modern labor market (in large part, because these benefits are easy for potential hires to overlook). And these promises create huge obligations that suck dollars from schools and classrooms even as they leave future policymakers to foot the bill.”
Now, is any of this the “fault” of Wisconsin’s teachers? Nah, not really. Everyone wants the best deal they can squeeze out of their employer, and the job of union leaders is to squeeze away. Is it the fault of public employees that they’re a powerful force and that local officials pander to them? Again, nope.
As I wrote, “If anyone deserves blame, it’s gutless, irresponsible legislators, governors, and school board members who have made untenable promises in order to win votes and keep folks happy. The point of reining in public employee collective bargaining is not to ‘punish’ teachers or other employees, but to address the pols’ innate, craven tendency to cater to passionate, highly organized interests.”
While debating Walker’s proposal, Wisconsin’s public employees argued that their sudden willingness to offer some benefit concessions meant no deeper changes were necessary. That line was echoed by no less than our earnest Secretary of Education. I found the sentiment, shall we say, uncompelling. First, the supposed willingness to make modest concessions emerged only when required to counter Walker’s ambitious efforts. Second, if this modest movement was the most voters can expect, in the wake of the Great Recession, I’m pretty dubious that such efforts would make much difference or show much staying power. But, hey, I suppose anything is possible.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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