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When Dan Nerad, the superintendent of schools in Madison, Wis., was informed that 40 percent of the teachers union was calling in sick this week (evidently, something's going around), he shut down the entire operation. "At this ratio," he explained, "we have serious concerns about our ability to maintain safe and secure school environments."

Where can one find a safe environment for children? As political props for union activists, of course, holding prefabricated signs demanding the state go broke funding increasingly inferior yet increasingly costly education. OK, by education I mean pensions. But isn't it nice to see kids thinking for themselves?

Now, as easy as it is to blame unions, it's not enough. We have a bigger problem, and that's monopoly.

Every year government grows, each time a state assigns itself new duties, the monopoly expands. Education is just the worst example.

Whatever you may think of the politics of private-sector unions -- now less than 7 percent of the work force -- they function in a competitive environment. Public sectors, on the other hand, have artificial leverage that no other workers in the nation enjoy.

In Wisconsin -- where union sign wavers have yet to get the memo that Nazi imagery is no way to embrace the new era of civility -- lawmakers are attempting to reform bargaining rights of about 170,000 public-sector workers in unions. More precisely, they want to restrict union members to bargaining for wages rather than take taxpayers hostage with unsustainable pensions and benefit demands every few years.

Wisconsin's fight is just a harbinger, of course. A recent Pew poll on states found that state pension systems have a combined $1 trillion in unfunded liability. In other words, every U.S. household may have the honor of subsidizing someone else's public service an extra $8,800.

The counterargument is familiar. These folks are sacrificing healthy salaries by choosing to teach your children rather than greedily chasing riches that they would almost certainly realize if they took their talents to the private sector. (Funny, isn't it then, that when we try to inject competition into education, it's met with anger and scorn by the people who sacrifice without it.)

But according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report -- a new one is due next month -- state and local government employees, all told, are already making approximately $12 more per hour than private workers. Last year, a USA Today analysis found that federal employees' average compensation had grown to be more than double what their private-sector counterparts were making. Public service, indeed.

Immunity from economic downturns and market fluctuations is a rarity in America -- though we've been doing our best via bailouts. The problem isn't that government workers are trying to get theirs; it's that the arbitrary reward is often tied to the vociferousness of the worker's demand rather than reality.

Certainly, how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker fares in this battle will be an important signal to the rest of the nation. Some places, such as Colorado, only recently have allowed state workers to organize. Other states are facing pension nightmares. Who knows? States may begin privatizing and allowing competitive outsourcing of jobs. States must, because nationally we're headed in the other direction.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," explained President Barack Obama, who, unlike governors, can (and does) borrow trillions. The numbers, though, tell us that public-sector unions are the ones assaulting taxpayers and brittle state economies. And the more we grow the state monopoly the worse it will get.

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