Election is beginning of end for unions

June 9, 2012


— 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 7 percent of American workers. The abject failure of the unions to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — the first such failure in U.S. history — marks the Icarus moment of government-union power. Wax wings melted, there’s nowhere to go but down.

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. That became a nonissue when the unions quickly realized that trying to defend the indefensible would render them toxic for the real fight to come.

So they made the fight about the “right” to collective bargaining, which the reforms severely curtailed. 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 voluntary. 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 percent 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 percent 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. Repeatedly. 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 Walker. 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 them.

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.

Most important, however, because in the end reality prevails. As economist 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 it won’t. 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 is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


BornAgainAmerican 6 years ago

"time being infinite, even the inevitable doesn’t happen on its own."

I agree with most of what you say Charles, but I have to take exception to your last sentence. I submit that time would have solved this problem...but it would have been too late after the state is broke. Same analogy applies to our incumbent Spender In Chief. If he is re-elected, will it be too late in 2016?

Roland Gunslinger 6 years ago

Spender in Chief?

You need to check your information.


When inflation is factored in annual increase in spending by Obama is -0.1%. The smallest since Eisenhower.

booyalab 6 years ago

Here is an objective source that debunks that. (Objective because they concede that the Romney camp is exaggerating. But it doesn't change the fact that Obama is a spender) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/the-facts-about-the-growth-of-spending-under-obama-part-3/2012/06/05/gJQAY9YhGV_blog.html

progressive_thinker 6 years ago

The 16 t in debt is not a lie. It just was not the result of new spending. The debt was the result of accumulated debt, the worst recession since the great depression, two wars, unpaid for, a prescription drug plan, unpaid for, and tax cuts, unpaid for.

While the Democrats are not to be held harmless in this, neither are the Republicans. "Spender in Chief" is nothing but baseless propaganda.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

"Why did the unions lose? "

Maybe because (almost exclusively out of state) billionaires and millionaires dumped $millions into the campaign to spread non-stop mendacious propaganda?

Jim Johnson 6 years ago

Where do you think the unions got their money? It was almost all from out of state, they even bused people from as far away as California, there were more people at those rallys from out of state than from in state and that's why they lost . More out of state money from that side than the govenors side. It's good to state facts but wrong to only state facts from one side, it makes your argument invalid from the gitgo

jafs 6 years ago

Pro-Walker forces outspent the other side by about 7.5/1.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Bernie Sanders on the 'Aggressiveness Among the Ruling Class'

“There is,” the senator says, “an aggressiveness out there among the ruling class of this country, among the billionaires who are saying: ‘You know what? Ya, we got a whole lot now, but we want even more. And we don’t give a damn about the middle class. We don't care about working families. We want it all. And now we can buy it.’ ”


Flap Doodle 6 years ago

The way the Mope loves soaking up the sweet, sweet cash from his celebrity fan1%ers, I think he qualifies as being a plutocrat want-to-be.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Obama plays the game to win, but he didn't write the rules-- the plutocrats did. Rewriting those rules won't be easy, especially with the Citizens United ruling making our electoral system completely controlled by money-- but we either fight the plutocrats, or roll over while they push us all into the race to the bottom.

pace 6 years ago

Labor will stand up for itself again, and the working families will stand with them.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

I agree. Unions came about for a good reason, and those waging war against them have nothing to offer in their stead. They are far from perfect, but as long as the economy is dominated by a top-down, corporate structure, workers will always need to organize to protect their rights and interests.

Eventually, the fraud that folks like Walker and the Kochs are perpetrating will become all too clear. And once the general public again realizes that paying public employees crappy wages with poor working conditions and no benefits is counterproductive in meeting the needs of the public, the attacks against public employee unions will lose steam.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

Did you happen to notice what happened in Wisconsin after the government stopped being the collection agency for the unions? People fled in droves.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Wanting a free ride is human nature-- once they realize that not paying union dues means not having a functional union, which leaves them completely vulnerable to getting screwed by folks like the Kochs and their hired hands like Walker, those dues will likely start coming back in.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

"...leaves them completely vulnerable ..." Wisconsin didn't do away with all labor laws. But your hyperbole makes a better talking point, I suppose.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

"Wisconsin didn't do away with all labor laws."

Not yet-- but an emboldened Walker and his plutocrat benefactors will certainly use whatever momentum they think they have to attempt to destroy unions and workers' rights as far as they can. As Senator points out-- for them, too much is never enough, whether it's power or money.

Katara 6 years ago

snap_pop_no_crackle (anonymous) replies…

"...leaves them completely vulnerable ..." Wisconsin didn't do away with all labor laws. But your hyperbole makes a better talking point, I suppose."

Well, only that pesky equal pay law.

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

Wow, Bozo, I'm going to agree with you on something. You're correct, that once the pendulum swings too far in favor of corporations or the state, then people will indeed unite and demand better. But the fact that that's not what is happening now is an indication that the pendulum has yet to swing that far. It's still in a position where many public sector union workers know that they have it better that most.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Generally speaking, anyone who still has a job has it better than someone who doesn't, whether they work in the private or public sector.

And the fact is, the public sector has seen very significant layoffs over the last 5 years, too. But that's just part of the Republican agenda, which really just comes down to a very intentional self-fulfilling prophesy-- starve government so that it can't operate effectively, just to "prove" their contention that government is always inefficient and ineffective.

chootspa 6 years ago

Yeah, but it may end up taking company towns and triangle shirtwaist level abuses to make that happen.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Keep Your Government Hands Off My Welfare State by Mark Engler


"when people talk about making cuts, they do not picture themselves in their mental community of deadbeats. In his response to the safety net report, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman cited Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, whose research shows that ‘44 per cent of Social Security recipients, 43 per cent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 per cent of those on Medicare say that they 'have not used a government program.'"

"Contrary to Tea Party belief, most of the growth in government programs has come not because President Obama has boldly expanded benefits. Rather, amid a historic economic downturn, more people have needed these supports. Just when the safety net is doing precisely what it should, conservative leaders denounce a system run amok."

jafs 6 years ago

That's a strange level of cognitive dissonance there.

ThePilgrim 6 years ago

"it hardly applied to government workers living better than the average taxpayer who supports them" We don't have to worry about that in Kansas.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Great link. Strawbs used to be one of my favorite bands, but I hadn't thought of them in years. Thanks for the memory jog (and appropriate song, to boot.)

Mike1949 6 years ago

Oh, don't get me started on Kansas. Brownback is destroying this state piece by piece. As a born & bred Kansan, I am ashamed that I have to claim that I am from this state. The Republicans are turning this state into a third world country with the middle class quickly joining the poor as a way of life. Even the idiots who think creationism (sp) is science think the time is right again to make our schools even worse (again)!! I could go on, but that is my point, it will never end until we get some checks and balances back in our state. We have only the courts to protect us now, but Brownback is working on replacing enough justices to make our court system corrupt.

dabbindan 6 years ago

the end until government finds out they can't get quality employees when wages and benefits don't compete. quality will degrade, performance and productivity will as well. republicans will continue to blame it on "that's because it's government" but eventually someone will figure it out all over again why it doesn't pay to exploit workers, any workers.

Scott Drummond 6 years ago

As usual, the right wingers crybaby in chief has it exactly wrong. What the election in Wisconsin demonstrated is the increasing costs to the corrupt interests controlling governments to maintain their system of graft and corruption. The unions may not have beaten the bully, but, much to his surprise and dismay (witness the degree of false bravado) we in the ruled class have bloodied the nose a bit. The bully will have to think twice before picking on the unions.

Liberty275 6 years ago

Brownback and the legislature needs to get off the pot and delete collective bargaining by public employees in Kansas. If they don't have the guts to do it, we need to elect people that do.

jafs 6 years ago

And WI was in fact close.

About 53-46%.

That means if 4 percent of the voters had voted the other way, the result would have been the opposite.

Scott Drummond 6 years ago

Projection, as usual. Repugs have nothing to offer but a return to the failed policies that led to the mess the President inherited.

Richard Heckler 6 years ago

Not soooo fast Charles K. Are you sure you are telling the truth? Ever? I would never translate the Wisconsin fiasco as saying no to Unions.

Because killing unions means wages drop for all working citizens even more than they have over the past 30 years. This is the main objective. Of course. Who wants to work for less money? Raise your hands!

Unions set the standard for wages,benefits,40 hour work week, safe working standards(OSHA) and employment protection. Not corporate America!

Not a bad showing for the Dems when you consider they were outspent $31 million to $4 million! And Dems won the State Senate to boot!

The Wisconsin election said VOTER BEWARE!!!!!

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

In other news: "..Highlights from the 2011 data: --Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (37.0 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.9 percent). (See table 3.)..." http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm If more governments stop being the strong-arm collectors for union dues, guess what will happen to those figures. ( = from = a = source = )

jayhawklawrence 6 years ago

In order for this country to move forward, we need to fundamentally change the way we are processing information. We are in the information age aren't we? People like Krauthammer do not offer any value because they are not a reliable source.

Politicians and these kind of columnists have far too much influence over naivete people who rely on them as "trusted sources".

George Will, Krauthammer, Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, Savage....

These people are all completely unreliable and many do not even have a college degree. They are very skilled at producing propaganda. That is all they do.

This is a good explanation of why there are fewer and fewer true statesmen and quality leaders in politics today. How else can you explain the rise of Palin, Bachmann, Rick Perry and even Brownback is looking more and more like a goof ball? How do you explain the Kansas legislature?

How do you explain the popularity of a pizza delivery man with a 9-9-9 plan to radically change the economy of the greatest country in the world? How stupid is that? The only reason he is not running today is because he could't control his you-know-what. That is scary.

The radical positions these politicians and columnists advocate are the result of a lack of understanding of how to manage people and resources. That is why their proposed solutions are like a guy trying to manicure his nails with an axe. That is why we are seeing so many extremists in government today and a fundamental lack of talent in government.

At the end of the day, money will never replace talent. All of that money will be wasted by unqualified people with big egos who should not even be in government.

jayhawklawrence 6 years ago

Seems to me that Romney has been pandering to the right wing wackos quite a bit since the days of Romneycare.

His plan to cut taxes on the wealthy is even more extreme than the 9-9-9 plan.

No wonder that the Koch brothers have dedicated over $400 million to buy the election. They need to make their move now before Americans pull their head out of the sand.

jafs 6 years ago

I think unions should be entirely voluntary.

But, I also think that if you choose not to join the union, you forgo any and all benefits of being a member.

Why should anybody get the benefits without paying the dues?

JackMcKee 6 years ago

I can't believe Krauthammer took a break from telling us much Obama sucks to tell us how bad unions suck. Guess he can chew bubble gum and walk at the same time after all. I always play the guess who wrote the column game with Charles and I never fail to guess what this clown wrote. It's time to find a new pony, LJW. This one is all used up.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

The Wisconsin election said "elections have consequences." ( from a source )

yourworstnightmare 6 years ago

Unions have been diminishing for 40 years to the point where unions in private industry are almost non-existent.

Public sector unions have been the last hold-outs, and I agree that this may spell the beginning of the end for them.

Whether or not you agree with unions, it is undeniable that they built a middle class in this country composed of manual laborers, which before unions was a lower class occupation that paid poorly, had few medical and retirement benefits to deal with injuries, and were basically subsistence level jobs.

Without unions, manual labor jobs will go back to being lower class subsistence level jobs with no benefits or safety net. This is demonstrably what the market will make these jobs.

I guess this is what people want.

Jonah Goldberg wrote a column recently that posited that wealth and comfort tend to make people complacent and blind to their own circumstances, based on an idea of Irving Kristol's. He might be correct. The wealth and comfort that unions provided to manual laborers has made them complacent and lose sight of how they got where they are.

Voting against one's economic interests seems to be the new black.

Katara 6 years ago

yourworstnightmare (anonymous) says… "Without unions, manual labor jobs will go back to being lower class subsistence level jobs with no benefits or safety net. This is demonstrably what the market will make these jobs."

And more jobs done by illegal immigrants which will lead to more "They terk er jerbs" nonsense.

ivalueamerica 6 years ago

I think it would only be fair that if every worker who vehemently oppose unions should then have an alternative contract void of any union won benefits such as overtime, 40 hour work-week, child labor laws, workman's comp, vacation, sick leave, worker safety rules, paid holidays, insurance...

Unless they are willing to forfeit those benefits, they are taking advantage of the unions work while trying to dismantle it. hypocrites.

I am all in favor of cleaning up unions, but I am not in favor of going back to the days of sweatshops, child labors, unpaid overtime, and the other protections hard fought and hard won by the unions.

jafs 6 years ago

Well, that may be a bit far.

Any benefits that have been codified into law, especially federal law, should remain.

But, I agree that anybody who doesn't want to join a union shouldn't receive any of the benefits of belonging to one - seems only fair that way.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

The 40 hour work week has been law for a long time now. Do workers have to keep tithing to fat-cat union bosses forever to show their appreciation?

Scott Drummond 6 years ago

Only if they wish to retain the gains they wrested from the me-me-me selfishness crowd.

ivalueamerica 6 years ago

lol, you remind me of a poster at my dentist office.

You do NOT have to brush all your teeth every day.

Just the ones you want to keep.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

It's not just unions, democracy itself is dead!!!!!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEwXa197uBU&feature=related ( dude, save the stump )

booyalab 6 years ago

"The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," - Franklin D Roosevelt

Katara 6 years ago

I'm fairly certain you've not read the whole letter.


Katara 6 years ago

“I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will” -Antonio Gramsci

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

The Chicago Way for union leadership: ".. This is yet another classic saga of how Illinois power brokers take from the many to line the pockets of a chosen few. Legislators awarding free tuition at state universities to the children of their contributors, school boards inflating superintendents' late-career salaries to raise their pension calculations, politicians awarding one another pensions for part-time jobs — like those three traditional scams, this pension-rigging for union officials fits the definition of "corrupt": contaminated, morally unsound, debased, venal. Calculating labor leaders' city pensions on their union salaries means Liberato "Al" Naimoli, president of Cement Workers Union Local 76, draws an annual city pension of $157,752 for a city job that paid him $15,264 a year. Then there's Dennis Gannon, former president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. He resigned from his city job, which topped out at $55,474, in 1993. But, because an accommodating Chicago City Hall rehired him for one day in 1994, he's drawing a city pension of $158,258..." http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-09-25/news/ct-edit-pension-0925-20110925_1_pension-funds-public-pension-pension-system

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