A story in the Los Angeles Times portrays Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin as one of a “pugnacious group” of governors going after the unions. This is not quite right. Walker is trying to limit some of the out-of-control powers of a public union.

Whatever you think of unions in general, a public union is quite different from a private union. Charles Krauthammer explains the difference today in his column:

In the private sector, the capitalist knows that when he negotiates with the union, if he gives away the store, he loses his shirt. In the public sector, the politicians who approve any deal have none of their own money at stake. On the contrary, the more favorably they dispose of union demands, the more likely they are to be the beneficiary of union largess in the next election. It’s the perfect cozy setup.

To redress these perverse incentives that benefit both negotiating parties at the expense of the taxpayer, Walker’s bill would restrict future government-union negotiations to wages only. Excluded from negotiations would be benefits, the more easily hidden sweeteners that come due long after the politicians who negotiated them are gone. The bill would also require that unions be recertified every year and that dues be voluntary.  

The unions really don’t like that bit about voluntary dues. First, it gives workers more opportunity to evaluate whether they want to be part of a union. Second, it makes unions collect the money themselves. Bummer. It is so much easier when the state performs this task.

The unions in Wisconsin realize that they have a PR problem-they’re asking not some corporate giant who can be caricatured as the millionaire in the old Monopoly game for more money. They are asking the taxpayers. Bummer again. So they are trying to make the battle appear to be about unions rather than their special goodies. As Krauthammer notes:

The unions quickly understood that the more than 85 percent of Wisconsin not part of this privileged special-interest group would not take kindly to “public servants” resisting adjustments that still leave them paying less for benefits than private-sector workers. They immediately capitulated and claimed they were only protesting the other part of the bill, the part about collective-bargaining rights.

Indeed. Walker understands that a one-time giveback means little. The state’s financial straits – a $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years – did not come out of nowhere. They came largely from a half-century-long power imbalance between the unions and the politicians with whom they collectively bargain.