So here's the question: are public sector unions to blame for the explosion of government spending that now threatens government at all levels?
As we discussed earlier, the new governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, is proposing some pretty dramatic cuts in public sector salaries and wages, along with essentially cutting public sector unions out of the equation entirely.
This is an interesting question, since I have family members who are public employees in the State of Wisconsin. A cousin of mine is a schoolteacher, while my sister is an attorney who works for the Department of Public Instruction. Both are on the business end of any potential cuts that take place.
It's easy, probably too easy, to vilify public employees. We all can offer anecdotes of indifferent or actively hostile people who work for the government -- the guy on the road crew holding a sign that says "SLOW" while you pass him at 5 MPH, the clerk at the DMV who takes delight in making you go through the line 2-3 times -- that sort of thing. My sister and my cousin aren't like that at all. Most public employees aren't, and it would churlish to pretend that they were.
Still, public sector unions are a big problem, precisely because they are obstacles to reform. Gov. Walker let it slip that he was talking to the National Guard about manning certain jobs if the unions chose not to acquiesce to his demands. I don't anticipate that you would see Guardsmen teaching elementary school or working at the Department of Public Instruction, but you might see them serving as prison guards.
Unions have claimed, correctly, that they aren't the whole problem. One factoid I've seen tossed around (I won't link to it because I haven't verified it) is that state salaries are only 8% of the total budget in Wisconsin. The argument that followed was this: why is Walker concentrating his efforts on only 8% of the budget? That won't make any difference!
This is a version of the same argument that Minnesota's governor, Brave Sir Mark Dayton, used as justification for his veto of the initial budget bill that the Republican legislature sent him. Dayton is demanding a comprehensive solution and rejects what he calls "piecemeal" solutions. It's pretty easy to see the problem with this line of argumentation -- if you start to take potential solutions off the table because they only address 8% of the problem, or because they don't address every problem, it becomes well-nigh impossible to imagine any scenario in which the rest of the problems get addressed, whether it's 92% or some other figure.
Early in Ronald Reagan's presidency, he took one action that made it clear he meant business -- he fired all the air traffic controllers affiliated with the PATCO union that went on strike. And, for the most part, they stayed fired. It was a tough thing to do, but it made clear to the other public sector unions, and the nation, that Reagan wasn't joking around. Walker doesn't appear to be joking around, either.