Mero Moment: Uproar In Wisconsin

This week I want to talk about public employee unions. The state of Wisconsin faces a $1.8 billion budget deficit for fiscal year 2012, a figure that is nearly 13 percent of its total projected spending for the previous fiscal year. The state’s total expected deficit for the next few years is $3.6 billion. The long-term shortfall in its pension system is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In an effort to tackle those shortfalls, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has proposed to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees. Unions and other interest groups are opposing him.

In addition to those protests, 14 state lawmakers have gone into hiding and promise they will not show up for an anticipated vote to ease spending cuts expected in the release next week of Governor Walker’s budget.

The war of words is certainly at a crescendo in Wisconsin. This stalemate has captured the attention of most political pundits. My conservative colleagues in that state have shared their talking points with me. They say that their governor’s new budget will “be an attempt to bring balance in a way that is both fiscally responsible and fair.” And that “poll after poll shows Americans want fiscal reform in Washington, and in their statehouses.” They say “everyone will have to sacrifice” to solve state budget problems and that “Wisconsin lawmakers will have to make tough, but necessary, choices in order to achieve a balanced budget.”

My favorite talking point, regarding the state legislators who went AWOL, is that “when disagreements occur regarding what spending must be cut, one member of the family cannot simply run away. Doing so is unfair to those who depend on them to make responsible and difficult choices.”

No doubt, each of these points is true. But I have some additional thoughts.

First, I have never understood why we let public employees unionize. Why would public servants feel morally justified in creating a union? A union’s only leverage is to strike, to quit working. Why is that acceptable for public employees? Why would we allow them to quit caring for our public safety, our social services and public education? Honestly, Wisconsin should set aside their budget woes for a second and simply challenge the idea that public servants are allowed to not serve the public.

The very first year I worked at Sutherland Institute I was called by a Utah legislator to go up to the Capitol and help craft some language that would remove the ability of public employee unions to deduct political contributions from their state-run payroll checks. That bill, called the Voluntary Contributions Act, passed, was challenged by the unions in court, and was ultimately upheld by the United States Supreme Court. Its net effect was to deplete the political funds of public employee unions in Utah. Wisconsin should take note.

Employee unions, in general, have a place in conservative philosophy. Historically, unions or guilds served to build community where none existed. They provided a sense of belonging and served to humanize a sometimes very inhumane free market. But today’s unions are not like those of yesteryear. Certainly, public employee unions are a relatively recent part of American history.

I find it remarkable that any American would support the Wisconsin public employees union in this case. Seeking the common good used to be a union hallmark. Today, it’s all about selfishness. If I were the governor of Wisconsin, I would fire all of the protesting employees, effective immediately, and continue to push the bill to get rid of their collective bargaining.

As for the 14 Wisconsin state legislators who have gone into hiding and abdicated their responsibilities? Well, that’s what elections are for.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.
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