WASHINGTON – Tuesday, June 5, 2012, will be remembered as the beginning of the
long decline of the public-sector union. It will follow, and parallel, the
shrinking of private-sector unions, now down to less than seven percent of
American workers. The abject failure of the unions to recall Wisconsin Gov.
Scott Walker – the first such failure in US history – marks the Icarus moment of
government-union power. Wax wings melted, there’s nowhere to go but
The ultimate significance of Walker’s union reforms has been
largely misunderstood. At first, the issue was curtailing outrageous union
benefits, far beyond those of the ordinary Wisconsin taxpayer.
became a non-issue when the unions quickly realized that trying to defend the
indefensible would render them toxic for the real fight to come.
made the fight about the “right” to collective bargaining, which the reforms
In a state as historically progressive as Wisconsin –
in 1959, it was the first to legalize the government- worker union – they
thought they could win as a matter of ideological fealty.
But as the
recall campaign progressed, the Democrats stopped talking about bargaining
rights. It was a losing issue. Walker was able to make the case that years of
corrupt union-politician back-scratching had been bankrupting the state. And he
had just enough time to demonstrate the beneficial effects of overturning that
arrangement: a huge budget deficit closed without raising taxes, significant
school-district savings from ending cozy insider health-insurance contracts, and
a modest growth in jobs.
But the real threat behind all this was that the
new law ended automatic government collection of union dues. That was the
unexpressed and politically inexpressible issue. Without the thumb of the state
tilting the scale by coerced collection, union membership became truly
Result? Newly freed members rushed for the exits. In less than
one year, AFSCME, the second largest public-sector union in Wisconsin, has lost
more than 50% of its membership.
It was predictable. In Indiana, where
Gov. Mitch Daniels instituted by executive order a similar reform seven years
ago, government- worker unions have since lost 91% of their dues-paying
membership. In Wisconsin, Democratic and union bosses (a redundancy) understood
what was at stake if Walker prevailed: not benefits, not “rights,” but the very
existence of the unions.
So they fought and they lost.
Tuesday was their third and last shot at reversing Walker’s reforms. In April
2011, they ran a candidate for chief justice of the state Supreme Court who was
widely expected to strike down the law. She lost.
In July and August
2011, they ran recall elections of state senators, needing three to reclaim
Democratic – i.e., union – control.
They failed. (The likely flipping of
one Senate seat to the Democrats on June 5 is insignificant. The Senate is not
in session and won’t be until after yet another round of elections in November.)
And then, Tuesday, their Waterloo.
Walker defeated their gubernatorial
candidate by a wider margin than he had two years ago.
The unions’ defeat
marks a historical inflection point. They set out to make an example of
He succeeded in making an example of them as a classic case of
reactionary liberalism. An institution founded to protect its members grew in
size, wealth, power and arrogance. A half-century later these unions were
exercising essential control of everything from wages to work rules in the
running of government – something that, in a system of republican governance, is
properly the sovereign province of the citizenry.
Why did the unions
lose? Because Norma Rae nostalgia is not enough, and it hardly applied to
government workers living better than the average taxpayer who supports
And because of the rise of a new constitutional conservatism –
committed to limited government and a more robust civil society – of the kind
that swept away Democrats in the 2010 midterm shellacking.
important, however, because in the end reality prevails.
Herb Stein once put it: Something that can’t go on, won’t. These public-sector
unions, acting, as FDR had feared, with an inherent conflict of interest
regarding their own duties, were devouring the institution they were supposed to
serve, rendering state government as economically unsustainable as the
collapsing entitlement states of southern Europe.
It couldn’t go on. Now
All that was missing was a political leader willing to risk his
career to make it stop. Because, time being infinite, even the inevitable
doesn’t happen on its own.
Charles Krauthammer’s email address is
email@example.com. (c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers