I have reflected before on the pivotal battle fought by Republican governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin to modify the collective bargaining rights of most public employees. Despite an unprecedentedly brutal fight, with union-backed Democrat legislators fleeing to a different state to deny the Republicans a quorum, an extraordinary anti-Walker and anti-Republican propaganda blitz bankrolled by the unions, massive demonstrations organized and also bankrolled by them, Walker and the Republican legislators succeeded in pushing through their reform bill.
The unions then doubled down, running a multi-million dollar campaign to replace an independent state supreme court judge with a union stooge committed to nullifying the law. That failed, and the unions were stunned. They have seldom met with such abject failure before; the experience is beyond ken, and their ability to comprehend.
Now another blow to union domination has been struck in of all places — Massachusetts!
Yes, lawmakers in the Massachusetts House of Representatives have voted to cut back municipal employees’ ability to bargain collectively for healthcare benefits. (The Massachusetts bill, by the way, includes the police. It thus goes farther than the Wisconsin law, which exempted police and firefighters from the new rules). And they did so by an almost 3-to-1 margin.
In particular, the law would give local authorities (such as mayors) of the more than 350 cities in the state the power to modify municipal employee healthcare benefits, such as by setting deductibles and copayments. The unions are pushing an alternative: if municipal officials and municipal union negotiators cannot reach an agreement, the dispute will go to binding arbitration. This is a common union ploy. Unions know that arbitrators don’t have to face the electorate, and don’t have to balance budgets, either.
Even more remarkable is the fact that the move to rein in Massachusetts’ public employee unions was and is led in great part by Democrats. This is the most dramatic illustration of a growing split in the Democratic Party coalition: more and more Democrats are seeing that their cherished progressive programs are being defunded by the boundless greed of the public employee unions, bogarting all the tax revenues collected by the progressive states. In the case of Massachusetts, healthcare benefits for municipal workers have more than doubled in a decade. And the compensation packages (pay, pension, and healthcare benefits) for municipal workers are consuming about three-quarters of the average municipal budget.
As in Wisconsin, the unions fought viciously to stop the bill they did not want, but to no avail. And shocked they were at the turn of the worm. Robert Haynes, head of the Massachusetts’ AFL-CIO (which represents over 175,000 municipal employees), squawked, “It’s pretty stunning. These are the same Democrats that all these labor unions elected. The same Democrats who we contributed to in their campaigns. The same Democrats who tell us over and over again they’re with us, that they believe in collective bargaining, that they believe in unions. . . .” You can just hear his outrage: dammit, in the good old days, when you bought off politicians, they stayed bought!
Haynes vowed that the unions would keep fighting the reforms to “the bitter end,” and that the union myrmidons would target those renegade Democrats as surely as they target Republicans. His union is planning to expand its demonstrations, bringing in police and firefighters to participate, increase the ads run, and increase the lobbying.
Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, offered a couple of large concessions to the unions and to members of his own party who are frightened by the unions. The first would give public employees 30 days to argue against proposed changes in their healthcare plans (though without the power to stop the changes), and would give union members 20% of any savings for the first year from contested healthcare changes that local officials impose. (Considering that the bill will likely save taxpayers $100 million a year, this is a pretty good deal.) The proposal brings the bill closer to what Governor Deval Patrick has himself offered. But the unions are still opposed.
It is unclear whether the bill will make it through the Massachusetts Senate, and if it does, whether Patrick will sign it. He is a very progressive liberal Democrat, but his state faces a nearly $2 billion deficit.
However, the win in the Massachusetts House is already telling. It says that we are coming to the place where voters are no longer ignorant of how much the public employee unions have been ripping them off. This awareness is only beginning to grow. It will accelerate quickly as the retirement of the Boomers brings to light just what massive fiscal frauds the employee unions have committed, and as people see their social services begin to crumble.
It also says that there is a limit to how long Democrats will do the unions’ bidding. Under public choice theory, we assume that all actors in the political process (voters, special interest groups, and politicians) are motivated primarily by self-interest. The politician wants to be reelected, and he knows that in most situations, the public isn’t paying attention to what laws are being enacted, while the special interests, such as unions, are. So it makes sense to screw the voters in exchange for special interest financial support. But when the public is aware and concerned, the politician knows that special interest money won’t compensate for the lost votes. In such cases, where voters are no longer rationally ignorant, the politician will be forced to defy the special interests.
We may be reaching that point.