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Stopping Unions is Not a Political Move
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union bill has created a resounding stir throughout the nation. The Republican’s proposal incited opposition from unions in Wisconsin and has brought attention to union spending around the country. But politicians, particularly Democrats, argue that this bill is little more than political warfare. The left is claiming that this is an attack on one of their largest supporters, and the media has swarmed to cover any electoral implications of Walker’s actions. The right says that these measures are necessary to balance the state’s budget. What began as a legitimate movement towards curbing the growing power (and expense) of public unions has created an unfortunate and unnecessary battle between the left and the right that is clouding America’s vision. Walker’s bill is certainly controversial and laced with division between the political policies of both parties, but it is not an attack on the left.
The controversy was created over Walker’s attempt to fix the state’s budget deficit, which is $137 million according to the Heritage Foundation (and expected to grow to $3.6 billion by 2013). To carry through with his plan, Walker turned to schools. According to Fox News, Walker proposed cutting $1 billion in public school spending, which prompted him to focus his efforts on public unions, namely teachers’ unions. Under Walker’s initial proposal, public unions, particularly teachers’ unions (but not firefighters’ or police officers’), were stripped of the ability to use collective bargaining to secure benefits. However, unions were still allowed to bargain over wage increases more than the level of inflation. The proposal also further reformed benefit spending to make public workers more accountable for benefit funding. According to the New York Times, Walker would make union employees pay half of their pension (which amounts to 5.8% of their salary; they currently pay less than 1% according to the Heritage Foundation) and 12.6% of their health care premiums, more than double the 6% average Wisconsin state employees currently contribute. Finally, state workers would be allowed to decide whether they wanted to join a union, a decision currently unavailable in Wisconsin.
This leads to the first political divide: what Walker actually wants from these unions. The left says that Walker attacked unions’ “rights”, while the right says he is limiting union spending.
First, there needs to be an objective definition of “rights”. To some, particularly those losing these abilities, collective bargaining is a right. Others do not hold such beliefs. The Heritage Foundation reported about this issue and said that collective bargaining is a privilege, not a right. Though the right to assemble is constitutionally protected, they argued, a union is more than just an assembly. In an interview on Nightly Business Report, James Sherk, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, called unions “cartels”. Comparing unions to OPEC may sound bizarre to some, but there is much truth in that analogy.
Unions give state workers immense power over the government, and thus voters, by being the final say in government spending. After all, the government needs these workers to perform government services, so they can easily block government attempts to curb spending and reduce deficits. This means that the representatives elected by voters don’t have the ultimate say in government spending. Thus, these non-government workers-the “silent majority”- don’t have a say in how their money is being spent. These non-government workers are further penalized by unions because they finance government workers’ wages and benefits through taxes. The idea that collective bargaining gives too much power to unions has even been upheld in federal court. In Atkins vs. City of Charlotte, when the government of North Carolina was brought to court over banning collective bargaining rights for unions, the court found that, “All citizens have the right to associate in groups to advocate their special interests to the government. It is something entirely different to grant any one interest group special status and access to the decision making process.”
The determination of Walker to end collective bargaining for benefits has angered some. According to CBS News, unions agreed to contribute more to their pensions and benefits, but pleaded to retain their collective bargaining.
"The unions, the public employees, have agreed to the economic demands. All they ask is that they be able to retain the workers' rights. And we're supporting them in that," Democratic state senator Mike Miller told CBS News.
But Walker stood his ground, even when some of the support from his party members wavered slightly. Republican state senator Dale Schultz suggested eliminating collective bargaining for two years. This plan may end up temporarily saving the budget, and it might be the strategy ultimately chosen by the state. Reinstating unions in a couple of years may very easily lead to these same problems, though, and Walker doesn’t want this to become a recurring issue. Walker’s attempt eliminates the road block formed by these unions and prevents them from returning to the pockets of the taxpayers.
Public union workers cry foul because their generous benefits are being attacked. They contest that they deserve collective bargaining, and many protestors claim that the budget deficit is not only a fallacy, but a problem that could easily be solved by increasing taxes on the rich.
It is acceptable that these unions are angry over the possibility of losing their benefits, but their budget proposal of soaking the wealthy to close the deficit is flawed. According to the Tax Foundation, Wisconsin has the fourth highest tax burden of any state (11%) and its top tax bracket of 7.75% is tied for the eleventh highest in the country. How much higher can these taxes realistically go? To claim that higher taxes on the wealthy would solve these problems ignores any sort of Laffer Curve effects of higher taxes, such as the possibility that wealthier citizens flee the state, which would only put a tighter squeeze on the lower classes.
But even if increasing taxes on the rich closed the deficit, it doesn’t stop the problem of union spending. According to the New York Times, union membership in both the public and private sectors fell around the country from 2009 to 2010. Union membership was 15.3 million in 2009 and fell to 14.7 million in 2010, while the percentage of workers in a union fell from 12.3% to 11.9%. Public union membership was 7.6 million and 36.2% in 2010, down by 273,000 members and 1.4 percentage points from the previous year. Wisconsin’s union membership has followed this same path. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total union membership fell from 15.2% to 14.2% and the 355,000 total members were 30,000 less workers than 2009. However, pension spending by the Wisconsin government has actually been increasing. According to Christopher Chantrill of usgovernmentspending.com, pension spending is projected to increase from 4.1% of state GDP (as it was in 2009) to 5.1% in 2015.That math doesn’t add up.
The unions aren’t concerned about “rights”; they are only concerned with their own special interests. With a wave of workers deciding to not join unions, these Wisconsin unions feel their power slowly being restrained. If this proposal passes and workers could choose to join a union or not, then union membership would most likely decline even further. This would limit the power of these special interest unions and their privileged members even more.
Other opponents of this bill see it as an attack on one of the Democrats biggest funders. Unions, teachers unions in particular, are notorious for their support of left-wing politicians. In 2008, unions gave Democrats’ campaigns $400 million in funding, according to the Washington Examiner. This is the Democrats’ biggest claim of a political attack. But their claims are only a diversion from the solution presented by Walker. By providing unions with such lavish benefits, politicians can gain support from the unions in both the financial sector and the polls. Pampering these unions is the real political move. True, a decrease in the size of unions would probably decrease the Democrats’ funding. But to say that an attack on the left is the object of the bill completely ignores what Walker is getting at. He’s not trying to attack his opponents; his goal is to cut spending and starve a growing beast. As it turns out, that beast is liberal.
Walker’s bill, which was temporarily stopped by a Wisconsin judge on March 18, will not be passed without a fight. However, it provides an answer to the state’s budget problem. The claim that it is an attack on rights is flawed. The allegation that this is really just an attack on Democrats is also misleading; these accusations are only a cover-up for the problem the left is breeding.