LARRY LOCKMAN

Clash between private, public sectors reaches flashpoint

Posted March 16, 2011, at 4:41 p.m.
Last modified March 17, 2011, at 10:58 a.m.

Who would have predicted, just a year ago, that Madison, Wisc., would become ground zero in the long-smoldering conflict between the interests of public-sector unions and the vast majority of taxpayers who toil in the private sector? Make no mistake: This struggle is “us” against “them.” The outcome will determine whether our children and grandchildren live under democratic self-government or a statist regime of kickbacks, cronyism and mob rule.

The parallels to our situation in Maine are striking. Wisconsin was the only other state that flipped both houses of its legislature and the governor’s office from Democrat to Republican last November. In both states, there’s a new sheriff in town with a mandate to change course. Like it or not, this battle has sharply defined partisan lines.

To help plug a $3.6 billion budget hole bequeathed to him by decades of profligate Nanny State progressivism, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed that most government employees contribute a modestly larger share to their health insurance premiums and pension benefits. The unions representing state employees initially said “no way,” but once it became crystal clear that public opinion was lopsidedly against them, they focused their rage on Gov. Walker’s proposal to roll back collective bargaining to cover only wages up to cost-of-living increases unless approved by the voters.

In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to grant collective bargaining power to unions of public employees. In the half-century since, we’ve seen how that experiment has worked to bring many states to the brink of insolvency with unsustainable and unfunded liabilities for the pension and health-care benefits of government workers. And now, what the Legislature giveth, the Legislature taketh away.

Bear in mind that collective bargaining for teachers has given teachers’ unions a stranglehold on education policy. The unions have dug in their collective heels to protect teacher tenure and block merit pay, in effect making it impossible to reward great teachers and weed out the bad ones. Taxpayers who foot the bill for this dysfunctional system are demanding accountability, but it can’t happen as long as collective bargaining allows union bosses to dictate education policy.

Clear and convincing evidence that teachers’ unions are a menace to good education is distilled in the disturbingly poignant documentary film “Waiting for Superman.”

Contrary to the distortions and disinformation clogging public discourse, “collective bargaining” is not an inherent or natural right of workers. Just the opposite. It is a legislative grant of power to certain corporations (called labor unions) to negotiate on behalf of a defined group of workers (called a bargaining unit). If 50 percent plus one of the workers vote to have union representation, the other workers in the bargaining unit lose their right to negotiate with management on their own behalf. Collective bargaining power is nothing but a corporate monopoly that infringes on individual rights.

In the case of public-sector unions, government sits on both sides of the negotiating table, while the taxpayers who bear the costs are shoved off to the side. This cozy arrangement has allowed liberal politicians to give away the store in labor negotiations, in effect buying the votes of union members with generous benefit packages in the out years, so as not to bust the budget in the short term. This closed loop of corruption and cronyism then funnels huge amounts of campaign cash back from the unions to the politicians.

But now, our collective chickens are coming home to roost in state capitols across the country. During their weeks-long siege and occupation of the State House in Wisconsin, pro-union protesters did hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to that historic building and left the place smelling like a toilet when they were finally evicted by court order. This is what our future will look like if mob action succeeds in bullying legislators.

Here in Maine, it’s hard to imagine that government employees would dare show the same level of contempt for public property and the democratic process. In any case, they need to understand that higher taxes won’t fix Maine’s budget and debt crisis. If taxing “the rich” were the answer, we wouldn’t have a problem today, since Maine has been taxing incomes over $18,000 at the top 8.5 percent rate for many years.

Maine’s public-employee unions are on a collision course with simple arithmetic. Fortunately, our new governor and legislative leaders have done the math and produced a budget grounded in reality. The sooner this moves to a vote by the Legislature, the better off Maine will be.

Larry Lockman of Amherst is a legislative research analyst. His email address is smallbizrep@rivah.net.

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