Scott Walker Is No More Anti-Union than FDR

The recall battle against Walker speaks volumes about the misguided priorities of modern-day progressives


Those trying to oust Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in a June 5 recall election are portraying him as a wild-eyed, Koch-brothers-controlled, right-wing ideologue hell-bent on destroying unions. In reality, Walker is more like a panicked accountant trying to fix the Badger State's out-of-whack books. He's no more anti-union and right-wing than the libs' beloved FDR—and that's his real problem.

Numerous websites have sprouted up dedicated to "keeping an eye on this radical extremist." Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate has condemned Walker's alleged "unprecedented assault on not just the rights of Wisconsin workers, but also our shared values and proud Wisconsin institutions."

Walker just might survive these attacks thanks to his virtually unrivalled war chest of about $13 million, although the election will be a real nail-biter. He's only two points ahead among likely voters against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who'll likely emerge as his challenger after a Democratic primary today, the very man whom Walker originally defeated to become governor. But what exactly has Walker done to deserve a backlash that, if successful, will make him only the third governor in the history of the nation ever to be recalled?

He confronted a $3.6 billion biennial deficit when he assumed office last year. Raising taxes was not an option: Wisconsin already has the 45th-worst overall business tax climate in the country, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

So Walker did what a responsible bookkeeper would do: tackle the biggest driver of the fiscal crisis, public employee costs.

Liberals dispute the claim that government workers are paid better than private-sector employees. But one indication that public-sector employees are not suffering compared to private-sector workers is that their quit rate is far lower, Reason Foundation's Adam Summers found two years ago.

And with good reason. Consider the facts in Wisconsin: According to Charles Sykes, editor of Wisconsin Interest, Wisconsin employees enjoy one of the best pension programs in the country, whose $1.37 billion annual price tag is wholly funded by the state—even the "employee contribution." Likewise, employees contribute all of $936 annually to their $19,128 average family health insurance premium.

Walker's draconian move involves making workers pay 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions and pick up 12.6 percent of their health costs. Most private-sector workers, by contrast, get no employer-funded pension and pay about 21 percent of their health care.

In addition, Walker has restricted public employees' collective bargaining rights to their wages, making other workplace-related issues off limits. This means that schools will no longer be bound by their union contract to purchase employee health coverage from the Wisconsin Education Association Trust, a teachers union affiliate. They can now obtain competitive bids, generating millions in savings. This has allowed the state to cut aid to schools and municipalities and balance its budget without triggering mass layoffs.

But what drove unions bonkers was Walker's refusal to withhold automatic dues from government employee paychecks and make these dues voluntary (although he unfairly exempted cops and firefighter unions from this rule, likely because their opposition killed a similar effort in Ohio). This won't be good for unions, but it's not a tragedy for progressivism—something even FDR understood.

After all, he once declared: "The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service." There is something obscene about collective bargaining rights for government employees whose appetites are unrestrained by market discipline. When private-sector employees demand more in compensation than they generate in value, their companies go out of business. But when government employees do the same, they burden citizens with higher taxes and debt, which is one reason why Wisconsin—like nearly every other state—is saddled with unsustainable state worker-related legacy and other costs. This is why no president's administration—Democratic or Republican—has ever advocated such rights for federal workers.

But Walker is like FDR not just in his antipathy to public-sector unions, but his support for mandatory private-sector unionism. He has pledged not to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state (like its neighbor Indiana), where workers in union shops would no longer be required to pay mandatory dues as a condition of employment. This is a big mistake: It will undercut Wisconsin's competitiveness and make it harder to restore robust economic growth.

That, however, is not the only way in which Walker reflects an FDR-like understanding of the economy. Contributing to his political vulnerability is his previous campaign pledge to "create" 250,000 jobs—as if that's something that politicians can control. So far, he's added only 15,000. And last month, the Badger State lost jobs, giving it the worst job creation record in the country.

Walker is blaming political uncertainty, but what's his cure? Not wholesale tax reform (although property taxes have declined slightly on his watch) or regulatory overhaul, as would befit a "free-market ideologue." Instead, he announced this week that he'll pump $100 million into rejuvenating the depressed parts of Milwaukee. His opponents are condemning this as a vote-grubbing gimmick. But that makes no sense, given that Milwaukee is a heavily Democratic area and this election is extremely polarized along party lines with very few undecideds. The more likely reason is that Walker seriously believes that he can buy growth and jobs through such "investments."

In short, Walker won't end forced private-sector unionism, lighten Wisconsin's hefty tax burden, or abandon government spending to stimulate economic growth. All this would have made him a Democrat in FDR's time. That modern-day progressives are branding him as a right-wing radical says far more about them than him.

Reason Foundation Senior Analyst is a columnist at The Daily where a version of this column originally appeared.