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The real story in Wisconsin

Our cheesehead neighbors to the east have been in the political news almost non-stop for 18 months now, ever since Wisconsin voters elected Scott Walker as governor and gave him a Republican legislative majority back in 2010. Faced with a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, Walker and the Legislature took the mandate they had won and actually used it in a positive way, passing a budget-balancing bill known as Act 10.

In addition to balancing the budget, Act 10 imposed a number of reforms on a spending system that was wildly out of control. Among those reforms was the limiting of some of the collective bargaining rights of the Wisconsin public employee unions.

Of course, the lefties went beserk. Some Democrat legislators fled the state to avoid having to vote on the bill, protestors stormed the Capitol (resulting in millions of dollars in damage and clean-up costs) and after Act 10 became law, the unions began bankrolling a series of recall elections that will culminate Tuesday, when Walker himself faces a recall election. The likely end result of all this will be that the unions will have flushed away tens of millions of dollars while leaving things pretty much the same way they were after the 2010 election: Walker will still be the governor, the Republican legislative majorities will still be in place and Act 10 will stay in force.

Much of the focus has been on the fact that Wisconsin state employees were now forced to contribute more to their pensions and health care, bringing their benefits closer to (but still more lucrative than) most private-sector benefits. For example, most public employees now have to pay 5.6% of their salary towards their retirement, and 12.6% of their health-care costs. Most private sector employees view that as a pretty sweet deal, even though it made the union leaders hold their breath until they turned blue. These minor adjustments have made a huge difference for Wisconsin’s towns, counties and school districts, many of whom have moved from deficit to surplus, and are actually lowering property taxes.

But less attention was paid to a provision of Act 10 that prohibited public employee unions from forcing their members to pay dues. Whenever a union contract expired, the union could only collect dues from members who said they WANT to have the dues taken from their paycheck.

It turns out that huge numbers of Wisconsin public employees don’t think there’s much value in belonging to a union. Since March of 2011 to this past February, the number of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) members is Wisconsin has fallen from 62,818 to 28,745, according to figures in the Wall Street Journal. Among just state employees, that number has dropped to 7,100 from over 22,000 last year.

Among teachers, the drop is not as steep, but it’s still severe. About 6,000 of the 17,000 Wisconsin teachers represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have left the union since mandatory dues were eliminated.

Keep in mind that even after Act 10, union membership was not without its benefits. The union still negotiates on pay issues, can represent members in grievances and provide other assistance.

And yet, thousands and thousands of union members – given genuine choice as to whether they would belong – fled the union when given the first opportunity to do so.

It’s not surprising. American have been voting with their feet and wallets for years, which is why unions represent only about 7% of private-sector employees. The public employee membership rate has been about 37%, and for years many economists said that number was as high as it was only because membership was mandatory in many cases.

“Nonsense,” the union bosses said, arguing that public employees valued their union membership and needed it to avoid being exploited by those evil, greedy taxpayers.

Those same union bosses were using employee dues to fund some pretty lavish pay and perks for themselves. For example, the state’s largest teachers union, Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), employed 151 staffers at an average compensation package of $95,250 per employee, all funded by the teachers’ dues. They’re now laying off about 40% of their staff.

Turns out that teachers and other public workers just don’t see the value in paying for all of that. Like emancipated slaves, Wisconsin’s public employee union members are shedding their shackles and fleeing for greener pastures.

Isn’t “choice” a beautiful thing?

This post was written by Tim Droogsma and originally published on Tim Droogsma’s Blog. Follow Tim on Twitter: @timdroogsma.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by John Edwards on 06/01/2012 - 10:58 am.

    This is important news

    This is a very important aspect to the Wisconsin political story. It will be interesting to see how the union friendly Star-Tribune, AP and Pioneer Press news gatherers play it, if at all.

  2. Submitted by Glenn Merrick on 06/05/2012 - 10:38 am.

    The Impact of Walker

    One of the dangers of blogging is that analysis gets done without due diligence. Mr. Droogsma seems comfortable with his conclusion that 6000 of Wisconsin’s 17,000 AFT members stopped paying their dues because they didn’t value the union. It would have been nice if he had provided evidence that he had actually spoken to one of them. As a community college biology instructor in Minnesota for 24 years I have not had an increase in my take home wages for 8 years. This equates to a 20 to 25% loss to inflation in large part at the hands of healthcare cost increases. During this worldwide recession the pressure to access take home dollars to pay for basic living has pressured teachers, like everyone else to access all of the pay they can. When Scott Walker struck at collective bargaining and unions lost a great deal of their function the urge to take the money home was irresistible for many. To me this reaction seems to reflect stagnant wages and the demoralization of Wisconsin’s hard working teachers. What is sad about this is that wage stagnation in the U.S has gone hand in hand with the weakening of the union and the vulture capitalism that Walker and the Koch brothers are foisting on Wisconsin. One of the side effects of successful public unions is that they put pressure on the private sector to increase wages. The growing disparity between the rich and everybody else that Walker is contributing to will insure a prolonged recession, less interest in talented people going into public service, and deeper doubt among the middle class that a taste of the American dream is possible in Wisconsin or anywhere else. To see how this plays out listen to Donald Sutherland in the movie adaptation of “The Hunger Games,” where, as leader of the elite class, he warns a subordinate government leader that it is best to give the people just a little bit of hope. So in a climate where the concentration of wealth is growing, jobs are not being created, and the public is unaware of the value that they receive from paying taxes perhaps Tim should have directed his middle class readers to their nearest lottery ticket vendor.

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