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Washington Examiner


Why Bureaucrat Unions Are So Hard To Beat

May 31, 2011

By Daniel DiSalvo

Wisconsin’s public employee unions evened the score with Gov. Scott Walker last week.

Based on the claim that Republican legislators violated the Badger State’s open meeting laws, a county judge struck down restrictions on collective bargaining, elimination of the state’s collection of union dues and a requirement that the unions hold annual certification elections.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court will soon consider the case. If the court sustains this decision, Republicans in the Legislature will be forced to either pass the bill again or admit defeat. Passage could prove difficult, as recall efforts and tilt of public opinion may have sapped some Republicans’ reformist zeal.

After losing in the 2010 elections and the subsequent battle in the Legislature, the unions and their allies have turned to the courts to overrule the Legislature and governor. They have also put pressure on Republicans by commencing recall elections. This multifront assault shows just how powerful public unions are. They may be down but they’re not out.

There are three reasons public-sector unions usually beat reformers. First, elected officials and unions operate with different time horizons. Governors serve four-year terms, usually two at most.

As politicians, they are mostly concerned with what is happening now. They must deal with many constituencies and a full agenda. Only a limited amount of time can be devoted to labor law reform.

The unions, on the other hand, are in it for the long haul. They were there before the latest reformer arrived and they will be there when the reformer leaves. When a company goes out of business in the private sector, the unions close their doors too; but since government never folds, neither do public unions.

Second, support for reform is usually atomized. Taxpayers want more efficient government that provides good services at lower cost, but they’re unorganized. Businesses have shared goals but their attention to the issue is episodic at best. Journalists are happy to report the latest pension-spiking scandal and then drop the matter.

But government workers are organized and they want job security, better wages and benefits, and work rules that restrict managerial discretion. Because those are ultimately political decisions, they have no choice but to remain perpetually active in politics.

Reform of government-employee relations is thus a classic example, in political scientist James Q. Wilson’s terms, of an issue defined by “concentrated costs and diffuse benefits.”

The costs of change would be borne by the unions, giving them a powerful incentive to mobilize, while the benefits to the citizenry are spread thinly, creating a huge collective action problem. Consequently, the coalition for reform is weak in comparison to the unions.

Third, public unions have a symbiotic relationship with the Democratic Party. They provide essential campaign dollars and boots on the ground to Democratic candidates. In addition, they form powerful alliances with other liberal interest groups.

Therefore, most efforts to alter collective bargaining rules, to give government managers greater autonomy to innovate, or to reduce the costs of compensation, are likely to come from Republicans.

In American legislatures, however, it is easier to block, rather than enact, change. Consequently, Republican reformers going it alone often hit the wall of status quo. And that is even in times of economic crisis and a resounding electoral victory, as in Wisconsin.

However, there are outside forces that may make reform inevitable. Global competition and technological innovation will demand it. That is if the huge unfunded liabilities for pensions and health care don’t catch up with state and local governments first.

Original Source:



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