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Opinion

Sunday Reflection: After the recall, big trouble for Big Labor

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Opinion,Matt Patterson,Op-Eds

When it rains it pours, and right now organized labor is getting drenched.

On June 5, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a union-driven recall election, drubbing his opponent 53 to 46 percent in spite of his organized labor opponents mobilizing millions of dollars and "50,000 volunteers who knocked on 1.4 million doors and placed 1.8 million calls," according to the Washington Post.

Walker had enraged his state's public-sector unions when he pushed through a series of collective bargaining reforms in 2011 -- reforms that saved the state and its municipalities millions but that effectively castrated the state's public-worker unions. Having failed to stop Walker's reforms in both the legislature and the courts, a recall election was the unions' last chance. They lost.

Their defeat extended beyond just Wisconsin. The same night Walker was beating back his challenger, voters in both San Diego and San Jose California overwhelmingly -- with 66 and 69 percent of the vote, respectively -- approved cuts to their public pension systems. "The voters get it, they understand what needs to be done," said San Jose, Calif., Mayor Chuck Reed (a Democrat, by the way).

The mayor is quite right, of course -- voters from Wisconsin to California and all points in between are realizing that unions have driven up the cost of government to Greece-like levels of unsustainability. This year, San Diego was paying $231.2 million -- or 20 percent of the general budget -- into the city's retirement fund, up from $43 million in 1999. Something has to give, and voters are deciding that that something should be union-bargained, gold-plated retirement packages and health benefits. Either that or basic services must be cut, taxes must be raised, or both. It's a no-brainer, even in reality-challenged California.

Voters may have wised up, but labor bosses still don't have a clue, even after the twin blows of California and Wisconsin. On June 10, AFL-CIO Deputy Chief of Staff Thea Lee said on "Fox News Sunday" that states and cities don't really have to decide between services and public worker benefits. "[W]e absolutely could raise taxes, and we ought to raise taxes."

For labor bosses, it's simple -- private-sector workers who make $8.53 per hour on average in benefits ought to forever subsidize the public-sector workers' $14.31-per-hour average in benefits. Forget about "let them eat cake"; this is a "let them eat Twinkies" level of entitlement snobbery.

Further evidence that American society is fed up with rapacious union behavior came on June 21, when the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Knox v. Service Employees International Union that nonunion members of a workplace cannot be compelled to fund unions' political activities. As Justice Sam Alito wrote, "This aggressive use of power by the SEIU to collect fees from nonmembers is indefensible ... when a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase the unions must provide a fresh ... notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent." Better late than never.

Does it all spell the end of Big Labor's outsize political influence? It may be too soon to know, but one thing is certain: Labor will never be the same again. Union power has been shrinking for decades, the only exception being the public sector, where membership has inexorably increased as labor bosses have pinned their hopes to a greater extent on government workers at all levels. In 2011, the public-sector unionization rate was 37 percent, "more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers," according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Scott Walker and other brave politicians who have stood up to their unions have changed that calculus. They have shown that public unions can be tamed -- that governors and mayors can make the hard choices the people pay them to make and still survive the wrath of organized labor's vengeful hordes.

Indeed, Walker has shown that many in those hordes are unwilling participants in labor's war on economic choice: Since his reforms made union membership optional for state workers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees membership in Wisconsin has fallen by more than 50 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Let it rain.

Matt Patterson is the Warren T. Brookes fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and senior editor at the Capital Research Center. You can contact him at mpatterson.column@gmail.com.

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