For years, unions have waged war on the GOP, pouring hundred of millions of dollars each election cycle into defeating Republicans at the polls. It worked well for the unions so long as Democrats controlled most state houses and governors' offices, but with the 2010 election producing huge gains for Republicans, the chickens are coming home to roost.
In Wisconsin, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker wants teachers in the state to start contributing to their pensions and pay a larger share of their health insurance costs to help close a $3.6 billion budget deficit. But he also wants to rein in the power of the unions by limiting their collective bargaining rights and the state's obligation to collect union dues.
A similar battle is being waged in Ohio, where Republican Gov. John Kasich is facing an $8 billion deficit but also wants to limit public employee unions' power. In Wisconsin and Indiana, which also has a public employee bill pending, Democratic lawmakers have fled the state in order to avoid having to vote on legislation that would limit public employee union power. Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators -- teachers as well as Democratic operatives on the left -- have crowded the state capitols in noisy protest.
But the issue goes far beyond these states. Last year, public employee union members outnumbered those in the private sector for the first time in American history. While union membership continues to decline to a historic low -- less than 12 percent of workers overall belong to unions -- public employee union membership has been steadily growing. Public employee unions are now the driving force in the labor movement and represent 36 percent of all public employees in the nation.
What is unique and dangerous about public employee unions is that they, in essence, elect their own bosses. Public employee unions put up big money to elect Democratic mayors, state legislators and governors. They then turn around and demand larger pensions, expensive health care, and hefty pay raises from the people they've elected to public office. And for decades, it worked -- which is how states like Wisconsin, Ohio, California, New York, New Jersey, and others have gotten into such fiscal trouble.
Public employees receive a staggering 45 percent more, on average, in wages and benefits than comparable workers in the private sector. Public employees pay less for their health care and receive far more generous pensions, often without making contributions to them. Teachers, who are among the most heavily unionized public employees, also have tenure rights -- which make it difficult, if not impossible, to remove incompetent or underperforming teachers.
Taxpayers pay for these higher wages and benefits. And who benefits? The public employees, of course, but also their unions. One of the most contentious features of Walker's proposal is to stop the state from collecting union dues and passing them on to the union. The unions are afraid that if the state doesn't deduct the dues from members' paychecks and turn them over to the union, the members won't pay up. The National Education Association alone will receive $358 million in its share of union dues nationally this school year -- virtually all of it taken automatically out of teachers' paychecks and turned over to the union by their government employer. Big Labor is a multi-billion dollar business.
Walker also wants to give state employees the right to vote on whether they want to be represented by a union -- and if so, which one. But the unions don't like that either. They want workers to have the right to choose union representation, but they seem scared to death that the issue might actually be put to a vote every year. As it stands now, many current workers never had the right to choose whether or not they wanted union representation; the issue was decided years ago by people who may not even be working in the system now.
The AFL-CIO spent more than $100 million last year to defeat Republican candidates. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spent another $50 million and the NEA claimed it spent about $40 million, much of that money collected not as voluntary contributions but in mandatory union dues.
Despite their profligate spending, those unions lost the election and now have to face the consequences. It's about time.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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