Katherine Kersten: The good life (for unions especially)

How labor caught on in government work, and why its time is up.

Katherine Kersten

Katherine Kersten

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Here's a quiz: Who said that the prospect of a strike by a government union is "unthinkable and intolerable?"

Who said, "It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government"?

Was it Reagan? Palin? Did Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker utter these provocative words?

No, no and no. The first quote is from Franklin Roosevelt -- that champion of working people. The second is from George Meany, the AFL-CIO's legendary first president.

Today, Gov. Walker is under siege in his bold fight to rein in public unions.

Walker is one of a growing number of governors who aim to close their state's yawning budget deficit while engineering long-term fixes that will head off a fiscal train wreck -- the otherwise inevitable result of exploding public-union pensions and benefits.

Walker's reward is to hear enraged Wisconsin teachers liken him to Adolf Hitler.

President Obama condemns Walker's "assault" on unions, and our own Gov. Mark Dayton denounces his "drastic" attempts to "steal" workers' rights.

Public-union supporters would have us believe that government employees' right to bargain collectively was handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. In fact, these unions are of relatively recent vintage, and some states don't allow them.

"The founders of the labor movement viewed unions as a vehicle to get workers more of the profits they help create," explained labor expert James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation in the New York Times.

"Government workers, however, don't generate profits. They merely negotiate for more tax money. When government unions strike, they strike against taxpayers.'"

So why did public unions catch on, then grow exponentially in the 1960s?

Because union leaders and Democratic politicians, like New York City's Mayor Robert Wagner, figured out they could benefit big-time from scratching one another's backs.

They could guarantee full campaign coffers for Democratic candidates while arming public employees with a power to dictate their own wages and benefits that private-sector unionists could only dream about.

Here's the vicious cycle: Union leaders take money from union dues and pass it to Democratic candidates. Once elected, the politicians "negotiate" with the unions that helped elect them.

In essence, the unions hire their own bosses who face them across the bargaining table. Eat your heart out, Delta Air Lines union members.

Politicians repay unions' financial support by doling out hefty pensions and benefits. It's easy to be generous when you're spending taxpayers' money, not your own.

Elected officials aren't accountable to a board of directors or shareholders, and they don't have to worry about going bankrupt, as private companies do.

Government is a monopoly, or near monopoly, so it has no concerns about competitiveness or efficiency to keep it honest. To keep unions happy, politicians need only kick the can down the road.

Today, public unions are among the Democratic Party's largest donors, and form the core of its on-the-ground campaign machine.

AFSCME was the biggest outside spender in the 2010 elections, shelling out $91 million. War chests of this magnitude strike fear in the hearts of politicians of both parties.

When New Jersey's Gov. Chris Christie took on the teachers union last year, he faced a $6 million barrage of attack ads in just two months.

Government unions' cozy relationships with the politicians who write their checks short-circuits the democratic process, giving partial control of public agencies to unelected labor leaders.

The public good suffers. Today, for example, union power makes it almost impossible to fire a bad teacher.

But the gig is up.

Increasingly, taxpayers understand that the structural deficits this arrangement generates will bankrupt us. Already, taxpayer-subsidized pensions and benefits are edging out other spending priorities -- from schools to parks and highways.

Scott Walker joins New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey's indefatigable Chris Christie in shining the light of truth on this situation.

Recently, Christie confronted a crowd of catcalling union firefighters.

"I understand you feel deceived and betrayed," he told them. "For 20 years, governors ... have lied to you, promised you benefits that they had no way of paying for ... just hoping that they wouldn't be the man or woman left holding the bag."

Christie is trying to save the state's public-employee pension system, he said, which is close to bankruptcy. "What I don't understand is why you're booing the first guy to tell you the truth."

Walker's battle is our battle. Christie puts it bluntly: "If we don't win this fight, there's no other fight left."

Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at kakersten@gmail.com.

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Katherine Kersten