The governor was able to point to examples from near-state rivals. In Indiana, the governor rescinded collective bargaining rights for public employees in 2005 and showed how reforms could work if they were allowed to take hold. This reaction was not limited to a blue state like Wisconsin. In San Diego, 66 percent of the voters approved imposing a six-year freeze on the pay levels used to determine pension benefits for city workers. In San Jose, 70 percent voted to require city workers to pay up to 16 percent of their salaries to retain their retirement plans or accept more modest benefits. In Iowa, the governor will propose requiring state workers, some of whom pay nothing toward their health insurance, to shoulder 20 percent of the premium.
The Wisconsin election has made officeholders and candidates realize that it is safer to take on liberal interest groups than conservative ones, safer to cut government than to increase taxes, and safer to face down irate public sector employees than irate taxpayers. Walker didn't just win, he won decisively enough to give heart to public officials across the nation to be firmer.
More and more people recognize that when it comes to state obligations for pensions and benefits, we are looking at a financial train wreck. If anything, the public wants more and not less of this policy of holding down taxes and cutting back on the scale of government expenses, so as to ensure funding for core government services such as libraries, parks, and healthcare. So much so that in Wisconsin some 38 percent of union households voted for Walker; he received over 200,000 more votes than he got just 18 months ago. The Wisconsin victory is a vivid illustration of the enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats, reflected in the fact that Republicans out-raised and out-organized the mythically powerful labor unions in a large industrial state and even exceeded traditional union efforts to get out the vote. Thousands of Republican volunteers made more than 4 million voter contacts ahead of the recall election, and the party opened 26 offices, most of which will now become Romney campaign offices. All this was in the face of Big Labor, which went all-out in putting millions of dollars, months of organizing, and its reputation as a political superpower on the line to defeat Walker. It got trounced.
No other labor fight has captured the attention of Americans since President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 for an illegal strike. (Franklin D. Roosevelt had called the idea of strikes by federal employees "unthinkable and intolerable.") Reagan's move encouraged businesses to take harder stands against unions and helped bring about a deep decline in union membership.
Quite simply, we no longer live in an age of surplus in which everyone can increase spending or cut taxes, be they Democrats or Republicans. We are in the midst of several years of minimal economic growth that forces tough choices on unsustainable public spending and future spending commitments. We are in a painful zero-sum era in which the politics of deciding who loses what, when, and how is upon us. Compromises will be increasingly difficult, for the public will not accept a labor movement that exploits its powerful advantage in contract negotiations based on political endorsements and votes for the very people who are theoretically on the other side of the negotiating table, in a culture of you-scratch-my-back, we'll-scratch-yours.
The voters are ahead of the politicians. The Wisconsin vote was not so much an anti-union vote as it was a vote against special interests that seek to preserve exorbitant benefits at the expense of the public. Governments today have no choice but to confront their unaffordable commitments, which were made when public employee unions, with their manpower, money, and clout, could get what they wanted or else would crush local politicians.