It didn’t take long for a state that had rallied around the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl victory to fracture over a budget crisis and the role of public employee unions.
Newly elected Gov. Scott Walker has put forth a budget-repair bill that aims to close the kind of budget gap familiar to most states, including Washington. As part of the proposal, he is asking public employees to pick up more of their pension and health care costs. That, too, is familiar to Washingtonians.
But Walker goes further than any governor to date by seeking to sharply curtail the right of public employees to collectively bargain for nonwage benefits (health care, pensions, working conditions, etc.). That move, more than anything else, is what touched off the opposition rallies and turned this into a national issue.
Only five Southern states outlaw collective bargaining for public employees. In Washington and Idaho, as in most states, it is required. Outlawing or severely curtailing this right would be a huge change – one that should be subject to a great deal of thought and debate.
State and local unions across Washington have agreed to concessions to help close annual budget gaps without stripping them of their bargaining rights. This includes police and firefighter unions, which are being spared in Wisconsin. The unions there have agreed to Walker’s demands on benefits, but he is holding out for fundamental changes in workers’ rights.
Collective bargaining does pose problems for political leaders trying to balance budgets.
Rules on binding arbitration consistently impose West Side wages and benefits on Eastern Washington communities, where the tax base is less able to sustain them. This leads to layoffs that cripple services. The state’s automatic deduction of union dues from workers’ paychecks bolsters the political clout of unions, which gives them more leverage at the bargaining table. As a result, political leaders are reluctant to pursue merit pay and other worthwhile reforms that could improve schools and other government services.
Changes in those areas should be made. They do not require the death of collective bargaining. However, the unions ought to take note that their resistance to reasonable reforms could cripple public support.
It would be wise of them to work with political leaders on ways to make the work force more flexible, effective and affordable. It would be wise of them to agree to pay and benefit packages that are more in line with the private sector.
The good news is that public employee unions are becoming more reasonable about what taxpayers can afford. At least that has been the case in bad economic times. The true test will be whether they backslide when the economy improves.
If they do, more governors will be forced to take the course charted by Gov. Walker, and they will have more taxpayers on board.