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Washington Examiner


Obama Plays Both Sides of Collective Bargaining Issue

February 22, 2011

By Josh Barro

Like many national Democrats, President Obama weighed in on behalf of government unions in Wisconsin last week. He said, “Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain, generally seems like more of an assault on unions.”

The funny thing about this statement is that federal workers have very limited collective bargaining rights -- and Obama has not been shy about exploiting that weakness. He’s using the budget process to push a two-year freeze on federal workers’ pay, without any buy-in from the unions.

If he were governor of Wisconsin, he’d have to get union heads in a room and plead with them to allow the freeze. So who’s really assaulting unions?

I don’t mean to criticize Obama for the wage freeze, which is a good and appropriate policy. But the president should be mindful that the same powers he finds useful for managing the federal budget are even more important at the state and local level, where lawmakers cannot respond to revenue shortfalls by running massive deficits.

If the federal government can’t afford collective bargaining for wages, you can bet that state and local governments can’t, either.

Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., isn’t the first state lawmaker to figure this out. You wouldn’t know it from the union protesters screaming in Madison like the sky is going to fall, or from liberal columnists like the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who claims that Walker wants to make America “less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy,” but public-sector collective bargaining is hardly a universal feature of democracy.

Only 26 states have laws like Wisconsin’s granting collective bargaining rights to most public workers. And 12 states have no public-sector collective bargaining law.

In these states, state workers have no legal right to collective bargaining; local governments may choose whether to grant bargaining rights. (In a few states, including Virginia, local governments are actually barred from engaging in collective bargaining.) Another 12 states have limited collective bargaining laws that apply only to certain classes of workers, such as state employees or teachers.

So Walker’s reform, which would sharply limit the scope of collective bargaining for most public workers other than police and firefighters, is not unprecedented. Indeed, it’s arguably more liberal than current federal policy: While federal workers have no ability to bargain wages, Walker would allow Wisconsin workers to bargain for cost-of-living increases up to the Consumer Price Index, and more if approved by voters.

Taxpayers have good reason to be wary of public-sector collective bargaining. It’s even stated on the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees’ own Web site: “We elect our bosses.”

When a union sits across the table from public officials it helped to elect, that’s not a negotiation -- it’s a recipe for runaway costs and taxpayers getting squeezed.

A perfect example is visible right here in the Washington area: Montgomery County has collective bargaining for public employees, while Fairfax County does not. In 2008, when the recession started hurting tax revenues, Fairfax County froze employee wages; that option wasn’t available to Montgomery County. By 2010, Montgomery was left struggling with four times Fairfax’s budget gap, and with fewer tools to close it.

This isn’t a partisan difference -- Fairfax and Montgomery Counties are both run by Democrats. It’s a matter of the greater ability of public employee unions to resist cost cuts when they have collective bargaining rights.

If Walker gets his way and Wisconsin sharply limits public employee collective bargaining, look for local elected officials of both parties to be grateful for the added ability to manage their budgets. As President Obama and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors have both shown, unilateral control over employee compensation is a valuable tool that elected officials should want in their arsenal.

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