” The moral case for unions–protecting working families from exploitation–does not apply to public employment.”–Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minnesota.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said that “the enemy within is much more difficult to fight than the enemy without, and more dangerous to liberty”. She had reference to the public sector unions, who at the time were holding her country hostage. Well, almost 30 years later one can say without fear of hyperbole that one of the most significant threats to self-government in America is the stranglehold of the public sector unions. In fact, it is pretty easy to make the case that we are in a position close to that of Britain when Thatcher spoke. In almost every state the primary fiscal problems are directly tied to the political and contract clout of the public sector unions or, in the case of the open shop right-to-work states, the power of their lobbies. In virtually every public policy debate, this power weighs heavily in favor of a larger role for government, less accountability for performance, and larger benefits and legacy costs ultimately underwritten by the taxpayers. In states like California, New Jersey, and Illinois it is no exaggeration to say that the public sector unions run the government. The Kellogg School at Northwestern University estimates that our 50 largest cities have combined pension underfunding of $574 billion on top of the estimated actual liabilities of their states of well over $1 trillion.
Do we have the will to turn this around? There is hope: governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Missouri, and Indiana are making bold steps, but much more courage is needed and should be possible during this budget crisis. In addition, there is evidence that union solidarity is breaking down as private sector union members are growing weary of subsidizing the employment protection and overly generous benefits of their brothers and sisters in the public sector while struggling with layoffs in their own industries. But this is one of the most significant policy areas in which the new Republican majority in Congress and the state legislatures will need to be very bold in the face of enormous political intimidation from a constituency that takes no prisoners.