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The longer that this battle continues, the more significant it will becomes to everyone in America. Clearly, this is not simply about reigning in government spending and deficits, although that aspect of the debate certainly looms large, particularly on the right. With the notable exception of Illinois, most states facing budget crises understand that they have to find spending reductions, because taxpayers simply are not going to put up with giving away any more of their paychecks in today’s economic climate. The larger question is a philosophical one: do public sector workers have the “right” to bargain collectively?
Unions originally came into being as a way of balancing two competing interests in the private sector. The UAW provided a counter-weight to GM, and although that particular balancing act got substantially out of kilter as time went on, there was at least a free-market basis for that kind of relationship. Public sector unions are another beast, because they’re not negotiating with management that is bound by the rules of competition and the profit motive. Rather, public sector unions deal with elected officials who, far too often, believe that they have access to almost limitless pools of money.
Moreover, few legislators have had the courage to say “no” to even the most outrageous demands of public sector unions. This is especially true in the case of occupations that the public has a special sympathy for. For example, everyone appreciates the risks that firefighters take and the vital job that they do. However, firefighters unions throughout the nation understand the esteem that the public has for firefighters, and they don’t hesitate to take advantage of those feelings in state capitals across the country. In some states, firefighters have the right to be elected to govern the municipalities that employ them, or to decide which of their fellow firefighters are eligible to receive lifetime disability payments, for example. These sorts of blatant conflicts of interests would be unthinkable in terms of your typical public-works laborer, but are common in the public sector when it comes to jobs like teacher, police officer and firefighter. Anyone who points out that fact is quickly labeled “anti-education,” “anti-cop” and “anti-firefighter” by union apologists, and elected officials are well aware of the dangers of saying “no” those particular unions.
Accordingly, it’s not just the Wisconsin teachers union that can’t suffer any roll-back of collective bargaining rights, it’s teachers unions across the country, along with their counterparts representing firefighters and police officers. A victory over the unions in the Dairy State will change the playing field, and embolden more state legislatures to aggressively roll-back the monopoly of power government employee unions possess. Wisconsin has long been proud of its “progressive” history, a term that has sadly been corrupted in modern times. And yet, if Scott Walker can pull this off, Wisconsin will truly be making progress in reforming the way that states are governed and how they spend their money.
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