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Public unions meet their ultimate employers: Voters

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on June 6, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
June 6, 2012 5:57 pm

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

Public employees – including those who work for the City of Tacoma and Pierce Transit – should be contemplating the implications of Wednesday’s elections in Wisconsin and California.

One lesson seems obvious: Given a choice between funding vital public services and funding union benefits that often far surpass the average worker’s, voters will take the services.

Even Democratic voters. Wisconsinites – who on Wednesday effectively endorsed severe restrictions on their state’s public unions – haven’t turned into gangs of company goons. Many citizens cast ballots in defense of their “union-busting” governor, Scott Walker, then turned around and told pollsters they preferred Barack Obama to Mitt Romney.

Some of Walker’s opponents have attributed the failure of the recall campaign to the governor’s vast advantage in fund-raising.

Still, they’re the ones who staged the debacle in the first place; they wouldn’t have been outspent if they hadn’t tried to unseat Walker a year into his first term.

More to the point, there can’t have been many Wisconsin voters who couldn’t figure out where the battle lines were drawn, however much money got spent. A vote for Walker was a vote to rein in public unions; a vote for his opponent was a vote for the old status quo.

A key word here is PUBLIC. Public sector unions and private sector unions are very different animals in some ways.

In the private sector, collective bargaining pits labor against management. At the table, union negotiators face people who will lose their jobs if they give away the store. Union leaders also know that the market imposes limits: A company goes bust – and payrolls evaporate – if its profits get squeezed too hard.

That discipline doesn’t exist in the public sector. Government unions work ferociously to hire their own bosses – the elected officials who control the management side of collective bargaining.

And governments don’t go bust, but they can raise taxes or cut services to cover the cost of employee benefits. The City of Tacoma has done both; witness the way it closed libraries while passing out pay raises to workers who were already well-compensated by community standards.

But there is a limit. It comes when citizens – Democrats as well as Republicans alike – stand up and say, “Enough.”

In the deep blue state of California on Wednesday, two-thirds of the voters in San Jose and San Diego passed union-opposed measures to cut retirement benefits for city workers.

As in Wisconsin, those results didn’t reflect some fundamental antipathy toward unions or love of predatory bosses. They reflected a sense that government employee compensation had simply spun out of control. There will be similar reckonings in this state if voters perceive that public employees are getting rewarded at the expense of public services.

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