My friend Diane Ravitch wrote the other day on her "Bridging Differences" blog: "I Stand With the Teachers of Wisconsin." I'd be happy to "stand with" Wisconsin's teachers if it entailed promoting a dynamic, rewarding teaching profession. But that's not what Diane is referring to. Rather, she's talking about "standing" behind public employee collective bargaining, while denouncing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's efforts to reel in unaffordable benefits and check union influence. On that score, I suspect few RHSU readers will be surprised to hear I stand with Governor Walker. For my take on Wisconsin, and the problems with public sector collective bargaining, see yesterday's piece "The Big Payback."
Public employee unions, which have become one of the nation's most aggressive and influential special interest groups in recent decades, are unchecked by the competitive constraints and self-interested ownership that help to balance out private sector unions. In his forthcoming book Special Interest, for instance, Stanford's Terry Moe points out that the Michigan Education Association has distributed a 40-page instructional manual for local leaders that's entitled "Electing Your Own Employer, It's as Easy as 1, 2, 3." And as one high-ranking state union official told me when I wrote Revolution at the Margins, "We knew the school system wasn't moving to Mexico," so there was no reason to work with the state negotiator on establishing a prudent salary structure.
The resulting overpromise is easy to see. For instance, when it comes to teacher pensions, there is a nearly $500 billion (and growing) funding shortfall across the states, and educator benefits have consistently grown as a percent of salaries--with districts and states contributing far more to teacher retirements than employers do in the private sector.
Indeed, while Diane lauds Wisconsin's public employees for accepting some of Walker's proposed cuts, it's far too easy for union sympathizers to forget that these same employees have been resisting the proposed cuts--and have suddenly become amenable to concessions on health care and pensions because Walker's effort to limit their collective bargaining rights has helped to bring home the severity of the situation. To suggest the unions would be willing to contemplate the desired concessions if Walker was not pushing so aggressively is, I think, naïve.
The Wisconsin fight is the opening shot in what is going to be a series of similar efforts. After all, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 29 states are looking at projected 2012 budgets that have shortfalls of ten percent or more (as a percentage of the 2011 budget). Illinois, New Jersey, and Texas are among the states looking at shortfalls of 30 percent or more. The bottom line: in many places, things are going to get worse before they get better. And I'll stand with the governors whose response includes trying to trim out-of-control benefits and dial back the chokehold that public unions have on the public's purse.