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Two years ago this month, Wisconsin and Ohio made history by becoming the first two states to adopt legislation revoking government union bosses’ privilege to force civil servants to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment after having previously passed laws authorizing public-sector compulsory unionism.
Wisconsin’s Act 1o protected the Right to Work of most state and local government employees, but left the forced-dues privileges of most public-safety union bosses untouched. Act 1o also sharply curtailed the monopoly-bargaining power of most government union bosses over civil servants’ pay, benefits, and work rules. But most public-safety union bosses were exempted from this rollback as well.
Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 was even more sweeping. It eliminated compulsory union dues and fees in the public sector, with no public-safety exemption. It also greatly narrowed the scope of public-sector union monopoly bargaining, with no public-safety exemption.
After Act 10 and S.B. 5 were approved, Big Labor mounted massive and lavishly-financed campaigns to overturn both measures.
In Wisconsin, union officials and their allies tried to use the legal system to prevent Act 10 from taking effect, but were unsuccessful. They also have repeatedly launched “recall” campaigns to oust politicians who supported Act 10, but the net result of elections since Act 10 was adopted has been to increase support for this statute in both chambers of the Legislature. A union-label lawsuit to overturn Act 10 was firmly rejected by a federal appeals court in January. Other Big Labor litigation is still pending, but for the time being Act 10 appears to have survived the union onslaught.
In Ohio, on the other hand, government union chiefs were able to use a petition campaign to prevent S.B.5 from ever taking effect, and in November 2011 they managed to wipe it off the books in a statewide referendum battle.
The multimillion-dollar TV advertising blitz union bosses deployed against S.B.5 predicted that, if Ohio citizens voted to allow this law to take effect and remain on the books, vast numbers of teachers, policemen and firefighters would lose their jobs. In reality, S.B.5 would not have had any impact, one way or the other, on the amount of money local governments received from the state to maintain their schools and public-safety departments. It would, however, have allowed elected officials to use the money they have at their disposal more effectively by curtailing government union bosses’ monopolistic power to obstruct needed reforms in compensation and work-rule policies.
State-by-state public employment data for the last three years compiled and published by economists Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson (see the link above) show that the ultimate result of Big Labor’s “victory” in Ohio has been greater job losses in the public sector than would have occurred if Big Labor had been defeated.
The Hirsch-Macpherson database shows that total public employment in Ohio in 2010, the year before S.B.5 was enacted, was just under 725,100. Public employment subsequently fell to roughly 681,500 in 2011 and 638,400 in 2012. That amounts to a 12.0% decline over two years.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin, where union bosses were unable to prevent Act 10 from taking effect, and so far haven’t managed to overturn it, has experienced a far smaller drop in public employment. Wisconsin had roughly 376,600 public employees in 2010, roughly 371,800 in 2011, and just under 372,000 in 2012. That amounts to a decline of just 1.2%
Of course, reductions in the number of government employees can at times be advisable and necessary in the wake of years of excessive hiring, or a reduction in demand for public services, or a decline in tax revenues available. But generally speaking, when governments need to economize, the preferable course is to reform the way employees are compensated rather than cut jobs. In Wisconsin, compensation reforms have enabled the state government to eliminate a multibillion-dollar budget deficit without a substantial reduction in state and local government jobs.
At the same time, Wisconsin has allowed most public employees to decide for themselves whether any union deserves their financial support. The dues-paying membership of government unions fell by roughly 20% from 2010 to 2012, even though public employment fell only slightly. Meanwhile, in Ohio, the number of unionized government employees fell by 16% due to job losses, rather than individual employees’ choices.
Government union bosses may cynically still regard the demise of S.B.5 as a union victory, since their loss of dues and fee revenue in Ohio is somewhat smaller than in Wisconsin. But by any reasonable standard Ohio has been a pyrrhic victory for the union brass.