How Walker, Christie, Kasich Can Beat the Union Bosses

Voters have historically rewarded governors who put the needs of the public ahead of special interests.

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If there ever was any doubt, it has become clear that the real story of the 2010 election was not the Republicans’ regaining control of the House of Representatives. With the new Congress, like its predecessor, doing what it does best—going on break—public attention has rightly shifted to the states.

It was in the composition of state governments that the real changes of 2010 took place. Nineteen state legislatures (that is, both houses in 19 states) passed from Democratic to Republican control. (The GOP now exercises complete control of 29 state legislatures.) Republicans picked up 11 governorships (they now head 29 state administrations). Nationwide, the GOP picked up a total of 650 seats, their highest gain since Calvin Coolidge sat in the White House (more on him later).

To the extent that the national press paid this seismic shift attention, it limited its focus to the partisan impact these changes will have on legislative redistricting. This is the process the states go through every 10 years upon the completion of the census. The Constitution mandates that they do so to assure that all members of the House represent roughly the same number of people. Many know it as “gerrymandering.” That is when the party in power tries to attain for itself the maximum number of seats. Put another way, it is when politicians are allowed to select whom they will represent, rather than let the voters have a clear choice through open party competition. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]

In its Washington-centric coverage, the national press gave the scantest notice to two other facts. One was that not a single state trended more Democratic in 2010 than it did in 2008. That cannot bode well for President Obama. The second is that, of the 10 states that will see the size of their congressional margins reduced, Obama carried all but two (Missouri and Louisiana). Any he manages to win a second time will come his way with its strength reduced in the Electoral College (there, each state is allocated a number of votes commensurate with the number of its senators and representatives). New York and Ohio will each lose two congressional seats. Each of the other eight will lose one.

The impact of the much under-covered 2010 political earthquake became manifest this month. As Congress and the president “dither” (as Dick Cheney might say) over the size of the federal budget and how and by how much to reduce the national deficit, the nation’s governors have gotten down to business. In states that have unemployment rates well in excess of the national average of 9 percent, governors are faced with mounting costs in unemployment compensation, Medicaid, welfare, and other critical needs, as well shortfalls in revenue necessary to meet these expenses. Constitutionally compelled to balance their books every year, some feel compelled to cut back on spending, and drastically.

This has brought them into collision with those who have really run state governments behind the scenes for many years, those who lead public employee unions. We will call them “union bosses.” Rather than absorb cutbacks across the board while keeping nearly all of their members employed, these bosses prefer to see the most vulnerable among their ranks (those with the least in both earnings and seniority) laid off, while they fight to retain every penny promised those most likely to reward these bosses in future union elections. In many places, the public is now being treated to a spectacle of public employee unions using funds, extracted from their members and collected by state governments, to persuade the public to turn against the very representatives it elected last fall to bring spiraling costs under control. It should surprise no one that the governors have, so far, had the upper hand. [Take the U.S. News poll: Is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker right about the unions?]

As they tell it, we are witnessing not the kind of class warfare of the 1930s, when the word “boss” was used to describe exploitative Dickensian capitalists and when union organizers asked fellow workers, as the song had it, “which side are you on.” Now the employers in question are the public. These employers have endured most of the firings and layoffs of recent years. Those lucky enough to retain their jobs or find work believe, with facts on their side, that they contribute, on average, more of a percentage of their salaries for healthcare and retirement than do their counterparts in the public sector. They cannot understand how it is that some teachers in New Jersey were allowed to contribute nothing at all for these benefits, while others in the public employ can retire in their 50s, and receive 90 percent of their previous salaries in pensions.

People listening to Gov. Chris Christie talk of “two classes of citizens” in New Jersey, “one that receives rich health and pension benefits and all the rest who are left to pay for them” will be forgiven for hearing echoes of John Edwards' once famous refrain about the “two Americas.” The “New Jerseys,” however, consist not of the very rich and the very poor, but of people in similar economic circumstances, but with one being asked to contribute a larger amount of fewer resources to maintain the lifestyles to which the other enjoys. The very rich, along with others with substantial assets, moved to other climes long ago, where the tax rate was lower, union power weaker, and the overall business climate friendlier. It is their migration, plus the increased numbers of Hispanic and other immigrant populations, that is causing the representation of red states to increase in Congress.

In truth, the distances between the two New Jerseys or Wisconsins or Ohios are not as vast as the union bosses imagine or even some governors imagine. Members of public employee unions, like other residents of states, have also been hit by rising taxes and a declining quality of life. There is ample opportunity for the savviest among this new crop of governors to appeal to them over the heads of the union bosses who claim to “represent” them. [See photos of the protests in Madison, Wisconsin.]

The governors would do well not to overplay their hand. The smartest of the lot will underscore that they are not antiteacher, antipolice or firefighter, or antihospital workers. They should state that those who work with other people’s children, save the lives of others, and maintain the public safety are society’s heroes. They should insist that the best among them be paid what they are worth, rather than have to settle for the same contractually mandated “range” as the less dedicated or less competent.

They should appeal to the “better angels” of their union constituents not to feign illness in order to slow down or deny services to the public that pays them. They should start talking about excessive, state-financed, union bosses’ salaries. They should draw attention to vacation homes purchased with workers’ funds and limousines paid for with members’ dues that drive such “leaders” to negotiating sessions. Providing they come across as champions of “overburdened taxpayers,” rather than as “bullying the little guy,” these governors can be on a winning streak. That they are can be seen in the president’s studied silence on this issue, after first weighing in on the side of the public employee unions in Wisconsin.

History suggests that voters have historically rewarded governors who put the needs of the public ahead of special interests or those deemed to be excessively selfish, greedy, or avaricious. Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge landed the second spot on his party’s 1920 ticket after breaking a police strike in Boston. Gov. Ronald Reagan, having defended the right of college students to attain an education at publicly supported colleges and universities uninterrupted by disruption, went on to fire the air traffic controllers as president. That was the instant, historians tell us, that the Soviets began to take him seriously. [See a photo gallery of Ronald Reagan.]

Through it all, Reagan found ridicule a more powerful tool than name-calling. He brought legislators and taxpayers to their feet when he recalled encountering a demonstrator who “yelled like Tarzan, wore his hair like Jane, and smelled like Cheetah.” How Reagan might respond to events now taking place Madison, Wisconsin is well worth contemplating.

  • Take the U.S. News poll: Is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker right about the unions?
  • See photos of the protests in Wisconsin.
  • See a slide show of the best cities to find a job.