Facing a growing tide of opposition over the skyrocketing costs of government employee pension plans, unions in Wisconsin are striking back with underhanded tactics. Massive protests in Wisconsin’s State Capitol began last week after Republican Governor Scott Walker announced a budget on February 11, 2011 that would repeal public employee unions’ collective bargaining power to negotiate benefits and working conditions, leaving them with only wage-negotiating authority. Police and firefighters would be exempt. Governor Walker targeted pensions since their costs are rising at much more unsustainable levels than wage increases. His budget also increases public employees’ healthcare premiums to 12%, and requires them to start contributing 5.8% of their pay to pensions. Wisconsin state employees have one of the most generous benefits packages in the nation. Currently they are not required to contribute anything towards their pensions, and only 6% of their salaries goes towards healthcare premiums. Private employees pay much more on average into equivalent plans; Governor Walker’s budget would merely reduce the generous subsidies given to public employees. This would save the state nearly $300 million over the next two fiscal years.
His budget would also require unions to hold an annual secret-ballot vote of confidence, eliminate mandatory union membership by allowing workers to quit their unions without being fired, and stop the practice of having taxpayers subsidize the collection of union dues through government payrolls.
Wisconsin is broke, to use the words of Governor Walker. The state has a deficit of $137 million, which is expected to grow to $3.6 billion over the next two years. Wisconsin has already run out of money to pay unemployment benefits, borrowing over a million dollars from the federal government to cover them. Governor Walker warns that the alternative to his budget cuts would be laying off up to 6,000 state workers. His plan would close the deficit without raising taxes.
Public sector unions have grown in power, and are now the biggest contributor to political campaigns. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) spent $87.5 million last year to help Democrat politicians and influence their votes. The number of government jobs rose even while unemployment during the recession tipped 10%. Many public employees in Wisconsin can retire at age 55 with close to full pay, much earlier than the average private sector employee. Schoolteachers in Madison are some of the best paid teachers in the country, earning an average of $56,000 a year in salary plus benefits totaling over $100,000 in compensation.