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.
The escalating costs of public employee compensation heavily contributed to Wisconsin’s rising deficit, and by proposing this budget Governor Walker is directly taking on the special interests responsible. He campaigned for election on a platform of cutting union benefits and ending the unions’ ability to collectively bargain. Wisconsin is one of approximately half of U.S. states that have no right to work laws protecting employees from being forced to join a union. This authority is all a creation of legislation; there are no “rights” in the Constitution that give unions the kind of power they have in Wisconsin.
After the Governor announced his budget, the unions went to work recruiting public employees to rally at the State Capitol in Madison. Thousands showed up every day last week. By Saturday there were an estimated 68,000 protesters. However, Tea Party counter protesters concerned about the rising deficit also turned out.
Realizing that they could not win using aboveboard tactics, the unions went far beyond peaceful protest, engaging in dishonest, unethical and probably illegal activity. Doctors were filmed at the protests fraudulently handing out notes to excuse state employees from work so they could protest. Conservative social media king Andrew Breitbart and a Fox News producer both easily obtained doctors’ notes at the protest, pretending to be public employees.
Efforts are also being made to sabotage the democratic process of the State Assembly. Republicans took over the Wisconsin State Assembly last fall. As the majority, they intend to pass Governor Walker’s budget. Yet the unions, with the complicity of the Democrat minority in the Senate, are trying to stop the Assembly from conducting business. Protesters outside the Assembly are blocking legislators from entering the building to vote. House Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald adjourned the Assembly early on Friday after receiving a call from Governor Walker warning him that he could not assure his safety nor that of his caucus members. Wisconsin’s 14 Democrat Senators have shut down the ability of the Assembly to vote by deliberately staying away from the Capitol at hidden locations. Although all 19 Republicans in the Senate have vowed to vote for the Governor’s budget, a majority of 20 votes is still needed to pass legislation. The budget is due by the end of June.
Obama’s interference on behalf of the unions was not much more honest. He admitted he didn’t know the details of the dispute, “I haven’t followed exactly what’s been going on.” Then he attacked the budget proposal, saying it “seems like more of an assault on unions.” Obama’s campaign arm, Organizing for America, now a wing of the DNC, assisted with rounding up protesters.
A recent poll from the Clarus Group found that 64% think government employees should not be represented by unions. With states facing bigger deficits due to the recession, the escalating costs of overly generous public employee pensions have become one of the most pressing issues facing lawmakers and taxpayers. Unions know they do not have popular support to maintain these unsustainable levels of benefits. Their return to unsavory “Saul Alinsky” tactics of prior years to thwart our democratic process should be scrutinized closely and exposed for undermining the will of the people.
While blocking the Wisconsin Senate chamber, protesters chanted, “Freedom, Democracy, Union!” Some have noted the irony, considering the protesters were preventing the democratically-elected Senate from voting. If the union-instigated protesters had any intellectual honesty, they would have chanted, “Alinsky, Unsustainable Deficits, Greed, Union!”