How has Scott Walker’s reform to public-employee unions played out in Wisconsin? According to the Washington Post, the lights may not all be out, but the party’s over — and even the unions know it. Robert Samuels’ profile of PEU life after Act 10 reads like a somber paean to organized labor, but what it really reveals was how the PEUs survived by trapping employees through compulsory dues and a lack of opportunity to escape:
At the old union hall here on a recent afternoon, Terry Magnant sat at the head of a table surrounded by 18 empty chairs. A members meeting had been scheduled to start a half-hour earlier, but the small house, with its cracked walls and loose roof shingles, was lonely and desolate.
“There used to be a lot more people coming,” said Magnant, a 51-year-old nursing assistant, sighing. …
Here in King, Magnant and her fellow AFSCME members, workers at a local veterans home, have been knocking on doors on weekends to persuade former members to rejoin. Community college professors in Moraine Park, home to a technical college, are reducing dues from $59 to $36 each month. And those in Milwaukee are planing a campaign using videos and posters to highlight union principles. The theme: “Remember.”
Act 10 made important changes to PEU law. First, Walker’s reform limited negotiations to only wages and working conditions, not benefits — which eliminated the kickback scheme of the WEA Trust from negotiations, saving school districts and local communities a ton of cash they were paying for vastly overpriced health insurance. The WEA Trust had to lower its prices to compete against other insurers, cutting off a major source of funding for PEUs. The reform also required PEUs to hold regular recertification elections, which they had been loathe to ever offer, and ended state-deducted dues payments. Unions had to collect their own dues, which were not compulsory, and justify their own existence.
Guess what? Many of those trapped by automatic dues payments voted with their feet:
Union officials declined to release precise membership data but confirmed in interviews that enrollment is dramatically lower since the new law was signed in 2011.
The state branch of the National Education Association, once 100,000 strong, has seen its membership drop by a third. The American Federation of Teachers, which organized in the college system, saw a 50 percent decline. The 70,000-person membership in the state employees union has fallen by 70 percent.
Samuels offers a couple of anecdotes from former members who are notably disinterested in rejoining the union. Indeed, most of the piece has nothing to do with any setbacks in pay, benefits, or working conditions, with the single exception of anxiety over pensions. Even that anxiety has less to do with doing with less, and more that the fat pensions they’ll draw will embarrass them to their neighbor.
The big concern is this:
The decline is politically significant in Wisconsin, a presidential battleground where the unions have played a central role in Democrats’ get-out-the-vote drives.
Indeed, and that’s the reason Big Labor fought Act 10 so hard. It wasn’t because they were worried about employees as much as they were worried about losing political clout, earned mainly through forced contributions and closed shops. They used that money not so much to improve the lives of public-sector employees, but to hand-pick their bosses, who would also be their negotiating partners. Now that their cash flow has become so greatly restricted — and will likely become even more so — they have to focus on delivering value to members or watch them walk away. That’s exactly how it should have been all along.
The Post story tries to paint the activists with some sympathy, but the truth is that their movement became corrupt, and now is both politically and economically bankrupt as a result. Walker succeeded in doing what the PEUs wouldn’t: protect public-sector jobs, and protect their choice as to where the fruits of their labor went. The results — the exodus of those employees from the PEUs — speak for themselves.