Op-Ed

The Death Knell Tolls for Public Unions

William A. Galston

It’s always a mistake to over-interpret a single state or local election, because special circumstances unrepresentative of broader trends may have had a large effect on the outcome. Would Barrett have done better if he had been able to deploy against Walker the months and millions he was forced to divert to win his party primary before the recall? What if he had enjoyed the full-throated support of his party from President Obama on down? We’ll never know.

That said, the Wisconsin election does highlight some sobering truths for public sectors unions (and by extension, the political party that depends upon them so heavily.) Two structural problems are increasingly impossible to ignore. First, at a time when resources flowing into state coffers are limited and demands on the public sector are rising, the salaries and benefits of government workers are bound to come under pressure. Once governors and legislators trim the layers of obvious fat, they’re left to wrestle with the competing demands of education, social programs, criminal justice, and health care. Curbing wages and benefits rather than services is often the most attractive political choice.

That brings me to the second point: As defined-benefit pensions and generous health insurance plans have become scarcer in the private sector, the more generous plans in the public sector have become especially vulnerable politically. Workers in the private sector do not expect their fathers’ pension arrangements to return, and they are resigned to paying an increasing share of their health care expenses out of pocket. With their incomes stagnant or falling, they are unwilling to pay higher taxes to sustain better benefits for public sector workers than they themselves enjoy.

Private sector unions began their decades-long decline as the unchallenged economic preeminence the American economy enjoyed in the immediate post-war period gradually gave way to competition, first from the restored economies of Europe and Japan, then from the developing world. By contrast, public employee unions thrived as long as public sector budgets remained relatively insulated from macroeconomic trends. Those days are over, and the risks of depending on the good will of hard-pressed middle class taxpayers are becoming more apparent. Democrats should brace themselves: Wisconsin is unlikely to be the only state to follow the trail Scott Walker blazed.

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