Will Organized Labor Go Kaput?

If organized labor were an animal species, Congress would surely declare it threatened, if not endangered.

That’s because labor took a thumping earlier this week in Wisconsin when union-hostile Gov. Scott Walker easily beat back a recall election precipitated largely by Walker’s move to take away the lion’s share of state workers’ collective bargaining rights.

I’m not sure I can disagree with Charles Krauthammer, who wrote on Thursday that Walker’s victory “will be remembered as the beginning of the long decline of the public-sector union.” On some levels, that’s a sad occurrence but I’m afraid the unions have overreached.

As of 2010, union membership constituted 11.9 percent of the national workforce, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. The only growth in union organization has been in the public sector, whose members are now 36.2 percent organized, while the private sector stands at only about 7 percent.

In the private sector, it’s virtually undeniable that union compensation packages have contributed to the decline of the domestic auto industry. It’s not so much the wages but the legacy costs associated with defined benefit pensions and retiree healthcare coverage that have made us less competitive. And for once that phenomenon didn’t lead to the off-shoring of jobs so much as it did the in-migration of non-union jobs from the Japanese and Korean automakers that found it cheaper to make cars in manufacturing-friendly states such as South Carolina and Tennessee.

But in the public sector, the growth of benefits packages has been aided and abetted by elected officials whose political support is often derived from the unions themselves. So, in effect, the unions have been bargaining from both sides of the table, while the state collects dues for the union from its members. And Walker’s victory is the latest manifestation of resentment at the back-scratching.

With relatively few exceptions, most state workers here in Connecticut don’t have lavish payouts. But it’s the length of the payout that appears to be the problem. Most state workers can retire after 25 years with full benefits at age 55. Those whose duty is deemed “hazardous” (police, corrections) can do so after only 20 years no matter what the age.

How many troopers and prison guards have retired in their early forties, only to live and collect for another forty years or more? Think about the fiscal implications of paying people not to work for a period that exceeds their working lives by more than 100 percent. And they can increase the amount of those long payouts by jacking up the overtime in their three highest earning years. I think the word “unsustainable” comes to mind.

This was the kind of dynamic at work in Wisconsin. Faced with defeat, pro-union activists have complained loudly in the post-Citizens-United era about being outspent. But of course, in 2008 Barack Obama outspent John McCain by a margin of more than 2-1. I don’t recall the unions complaining about the perversion of Democracy then.

It is certainly true, however, that Walker outspent his opponent by a much greater margin (7-1, by some accounts). But if that’s the case, why didn’t the unions get more support from the national Democratic Party and President Obama, who never made a live endorsement to support the candidacy of Democrat Tom Barrett.

Instead, Obama tweeted his endorsement on Monday night between star-studded fundraisers in Manhattan. If I were Barrett, I’d be furious.

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