Last week's recall vote in Wisconsin has been heralded by many watchers as a forecast of the presidential election. I think they are wrong. It is far more consequential than that. What this election portends is a serious conversation about public unions and their benefits. This is necessary for many state and municipal governments to dodge a Greek-style disaster that is far closer than most Americans recognize.
The salient issue of the Wisconsin recall is the surrogacy of public sector unions in the budget processes of state and local government. Even a punishing loss by the reformer, Gov. Scott Walker, would not have derailed change, for the actions he took revealed a frightful truth: Public sector unions have become vestigial to state and local governance.
While the growing irrelevance of public sector unions is not new (the Ball State Chapter of AAUP last updated its website in the fall of 2006, about the same time Facebook entered the scene), Wisconsin is a special case. Madison is where public sector unions were launched in the 1930s, so the results of Gov. Walker's reforms are especially significant.
In Wisconsin, the end to mandatory membership saw Madison's AFSCME and AFT enrollments plummet by two-thirds. Freedom of choice meant that the majority of state workers and teachers in Wisconsin made the simple felicific calculations and abandoned the unions. It is not hard to figure out why.
Throughout the nation, the profligacy of government spending is becoming apparent to even the most ardent spendthrift. A dozen states border on effective bankruptcy, while those most fiscally prudent states thrive. But one need not be a student of public finance to apprehend the problem. It is sufficient simply to compare the pension and health care plans many public employees receive with those in the private sector to see clearly a crisis in the making. Wisconsin signals hope, but three additional points need making.
First, it is common rhetoric to accuse those who oppose the public-sector union shakedown of taxpayers of “demonizing” public workers. There's no better way to stir up member passions, and it is standard fare in Indiana. That tactic failed in Wisconsin. The unparalleled exodus of public union members choked this rhetoric and proved beyond a doubt that most government workers aren't looking for special breaks, early retirement and exceptional perks. They simply want to teach students, make better their cities and towns and keep their neighbors safe.
Second, the real political beneficiaries of the Wisconsin vote are not Republicans, but Democrats. Throughout the nation, the states, cities and towns that face bankruptcy over public sector unions are overwhelmingly Democratic bastions. These Democratic governors and mayors around the country seek ways to unburden their budgets from decades of union excesses. This recall provides real ammunition for change.
Finally, the Republic could well benefit from thoughtful, spirited, grown-up and public minded unions representing government workers. What we have now, be they the withered and extraneous AAUP or cynical and angry AFSCME, is none of the above.