Why you should care
Because the right is playing for keeps.
The author is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 did not lay the groundwork for Republican political dominance. But the March 2011 signing of ACT 10, a dramatic reform of public sector labor laws, by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker certainly did. To understate it: If Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics. It’s that big a deal.
Here’s what Act 10 did and why it’s the model for the 25 states where Republicans control the House, Senate and governorship (public safety officers — primarily police and fire — are exempt from these changes).
- No Wisconsin government worker can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment.
- No Wisconsin government worker can be forced to pay union dues, “agency fees” or any other payment to unions. (A teacher earning $50,000 in base salary previously was forced to pay $1,000 — 2 percent — in annual dues.)
- No government entity can withhold union dues from workers and hand the money to unions. Those wishing to join a union must now write a check to the union. In the past, most unions negotiated to have the government collect their dues, and the true cost of dues was hidden in the withholding. Income tax withholding has the same effect in disguising the true cost of taxation for many Americans.
- Unions may not negotiate pensions. The city or state has a pension plan, but mayors can no longer be mau-maued to grant pension benefits that would bankrupt the city in 30 years.
- Unions cannot negotiate benefits or work rules. Nor can they negotiate wage increases beyond the rate of inflation. Municipalities may put pay increases beyond inflation to the voters by referendum.
- Each union must hold an annual vote to see whether members wish to continue to be “represented” by that union. Many local unions have disappeared as a result.
In the five years since Act 10’s signing, more than 135,000 government workers — about one-third of government workers — stopped paying dues. At $1,000 per employee that costs the largest structure in the Wisconsin left $135 million a year. Over a two-year election cycle, the left in Wisconsin is short $270 million that once paid for voter ID, voter education and “get out the vote” efforts. Over the past five years, Wisconsin’s progressive structures were unable to coerce union dues totaling roughly a half-billion dollars. This is just in one state, and this was just the early years; each year, the number and percentage of government employees opting out grows.
Violent Opposition Before, Silence After
Union leaders in Wisconsin and the other 49 states understood what was at stake. They offered to accept pay cuts if they could maintain the laws that forced workers to pay dues and have the state collect them for the union. Their focus was on funding the union structure — not pay or benefits. Tens of thousands of paid union workers flooded into Madison, besieging the Capitol building for weeks. Other states’ unions paid for this effort, because they knew they could not afford for Act 10 to pass and become a model. They knew the stakes.
But Act 10 did pass. The unions tried to defeat the chief justice of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court to have the legislation ruled unconstitutional. They failed. They tried to recall Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. The recall was defeated. They tried again to recall enough senators to give the Democrats control of the legislature. They failed. And four years after Act 10 passed, there was an all-out effort to stop Gov. Walker from winning re-election. He won.
Even worse for unions and Democrats, Act 10 proved popular. Teachers were free to move from one school to another, untethered by fear of losing tenure. Bad teachers can be asked to go, and the unions’ role as defender of “last hired, first fired” layoffs was replaced by hiring and firing based on competency.
The MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank, calculated that in the first five years, taxpayers saved more than $5 billion, or on average $1,277 on property taxes and $916 in lower income taxes. Mayors, even Democrats, loved the ability to actually govern cities and manage workforces. The Democrats’ campaigns against Walker were funded by unions wishing to kill Act 10. But they campaigned publicly on other issues, knowing their candidates had all used Act 10 to govern their cities and counties.
Act 10 Is the New Black
It is the model for all Republican legislatures. Iowa enacted similar legislation this spring after the GOP captured the state Senate. Newly minted unified Republican control in Kentucky and Missouri, led by Govs. Matt Bevin and Eric Greitens, is committed to enacting Act 10 as soon as possible.
Today, there are 14.3 million union members in the U.S. — 7.3 million in the public sector and 7 million in the real economy. They take in annual dues of more than $8 billion every year — $32 billion over the course of a four-year presidential cycle.
Currently, there are 25 states with Republican control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature. If half of them pass Act 10 or its equivalent, the collapse of union dues cannot be replaced by any collection of progressive billionaires. Before ACT 10, the Wisconsin GOP had majorities consisting of 57 to 38 in the state House and 19 to 14 in the Senate. Today, they have the governorship and larger majorities of 64-35 in the House and 20-13 in the Senate. In short, Act 10 is campaign finance reform. No money taken by force may be employed in politics. Less kindly, but quite accurately, “no stolen money in politics.”
Like parallel trench lines approaching a besieged fortress, Act 10 cannot be stopped, and once enacted the state becomes red. No states with Act 10 can continue to be part of the once-vaunted “Blue Wall,” and it is difficult to see how a state that enacts Act 10 could repeal it. Of the 28 right-to-work states, only one repealed it, and later repassed it.
Wisconsin, which had not voted for a Republican candidate for president since 1984, voted for Trump five years after Act 10 passed and re-elected Sen. Ron Johnson, whom Democrats and Republicans believed to be the second most likely Republican to lose in 2016.
Trump’s tweets attract attention. Act 10 moves forward. Quietly. Inexorably. Changing the political landscape like a glacier.