Madness in Mad-Town

Brace yourselves — unionized fanaticism is liable to spread here

Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin and site of the Wisconsin state Legislature, is one of the few cities that can match up with Ann Arbor and Berkeley, Calif., for leftish trendiness. It is often referred to, by both admirers and critics, as “Mad-town.” Seldom has a city’s nickname been quite so appropriate.

The latest outbreak of lunacy began when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, confronting a severe budget crisis, proposed sharp limitations on collective bargaining in state and local governments: Aside from the police and fire departments, collective bargaining would be limited to compensation, which would be capped at the rate of inflation. Unions would no longer be allowed to force workers to pay union dues (or agency fees) as a condition of keeping a job. They would be required to win annual recertification elections in order to continue to represent government employees.

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These are pretty big changes, and one can hardly be surprised that some lawmakers and a lot of government employees have been upset, but the response has turned into melodrama, with teachers throughout the state using sick leave in order to attend protests — in some cases bringing students with them. The Democratic party caucus in the state Legislature has removed itself to Illinois to assure that a quorum can’t be met in the legislative chambers, thereby preventing votes on Walker’s reform bills. They insist, in all apparent earnestness, that they are conducting the public’s business as they desperately flee democratic debate in Mad-town.

This is likely to get worse before it gets better — the Ohio Legislature is considering its own labor law reform package. And Michiganders should be bracing themselves too because this union insanity is liable to spread here eventually. Like Wisconsin, Michigan is the home of powerful government employee unions who have been given broad legal prerogatives, including the power to collect union dues and fees from workers who do not necessarily support their agendas. Unions in Michigan, like their counterparts in Wisconsin, have used these powers recklessly. As in Wisconsin, taxpayers in Michigan have reached the point where they can no longer afford to maintain government employees in the manner to which they have become accustomed. And while Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has not been quite as direct in terms of confronting government employee union officials as his counterpart in Mad-town, Snyder has shown the ability to read and understand a balance sheet.

Dealing with that economic reality will mean dealing with government employee unions. The Mackinac Center has already proposed a wide range of changes to labor law that would allow taxpayers to regain control over employee spending, including one suggestion that even goes beyond the Wisconsin plan — outright abolition of collective bargaining for government employees.

Michigan’s government employee unions are every bit as capable of extreme petulance as their brothers in Wisconsin. Already, public school teachers in West Bloomfield have staged their own "sick out" over a relatively piddling proposal that they contribute to the cost of their benefits. Politico is reporting that the AFL-CIO is calling for emergency meetings to deal with the political situation in Wisconsin and about a dozen other states, Michigan among them. It may just be a matter of time before this fight — complete with histrionics from union officials desperate to avoid economic reality — reaches our state. One can only hope that economic sanity ultimately prevails, in Mad-town and our own state.

In government, at least, collective bargaining is not a right. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that while public employees are allowed to form unions, state and local governments are not obligated to bargain with them — unions can do their work with voluntary contributions from their supporters, through rational debate instead (assuming they can manage that). And as unions in Wisconsin arrange sick-outs and their defenders in the Legislature flee the state, their reaction only buttresses the case for bringing an end to public-sector bargaining. After all, there is seldom much point in arguing with fanatics. Is bargaining with them likely to work any better?