This week President Obama was roundly criticized, even by many of his allies, for submitting a federal budget that actually increases our already crushing deficit. But that didn't stop him Thursday from jumping into Wisconsin's titanic budget battle. He accused the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, of launching an "assault" on unions with his emergency legislation aimed at cutting the state budget.
The real assault this week was led by Organizing for America, the successor to President's Obama's 2008 campaign organization. It helped fill buses of protesters who flooded the state capital of Madison and ran 15 phone banks urging people to call state legislators.
Mr. Walker's proposals are hardly revolutionary. Facing a $137 million budget deficit, he has decided to try to avoid laying off 5,500 state workers by proposing that they contribute 5.8% of their income towards their pensions and 12.6% towards health insurance. That's roughly the national average for public pension payments, and it is less than half the national average of what government workers contribute to health care. Mr. Walker also wants to limit the power of public-employee unions to negotiate contracts and work rules—something that 24 states already limit or ban.
The governor's move is in reaction to a 2009 law implemented by the then-Democratic legislature that expanded public unions' collective-bargaining rights and lifted existing limits on teacher raises.
Democratic reactions to these proposals have been over the top. In addition to thethousands of protesters who descended on the Capitol building on Thursday to intimidate legislators, so many teachers called in sick on Friday that school districts in Milwaukee, Madison and Janesville had to close.
Then there's the rhetoric. "This is about the clean government Wisconsin has enjoyed over the past century versus the corrupt government that Scott Walker proposes," thundered the liberal Madison Capital Times newspaper earlier this week. Democratic State Sen. Bob Jauch called Mr. Walker's move "the end of the democratic process" during the committee debate on Wednesday night.
But when it became obvious that the governor had the votes to pass it, Mr. Jauch and his 13 Democratic colleagues got on a bus and fled the state to deprive Republicans of a sufficient quorum to conduct any legislative business. They were later found at a Best Western Hotel in Rockford, Ill. Scot Ross, director of the liberal activist group One Wisconsin Now, endorsed the temper tantrum: "The senators have rightfully taken matters into their own hands."
Why are national liberal groups treating Wisconsin as if it were their last stand? Partly for reasons of symbolism. Historically, Wisconsin "embraced the organized labor movement more heartily than any other [state]," notes liberal activist Abe Sauer.
The Badger State became the first to pass a worker-compensation program in 1911, as well as the first to create unemployment compensation in 1932. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—the chief national union representing non-federal public employees—was founded in Madison in 1936. And in 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to grant public employees collective-bargaining rights, which influenced President John F. Kennedy's decision to grant federal employees the right to join unions three years later.
Labor historian Fred Siegel offers further reasons why unions are manning the barricades. Mr. Walker would require that public-employee unions be recertified annually by a majority vote of all their members, not merely by a majority of those that choose to cast ballots. In addition, he would end the government's practice of automatically deducting union dues from employee paychecks. For Wisconsin teachers, union dues total between $700 and $1,000 a year.
"Ending dues deductions breaks the political cycle in which government collects dues, gives them to the unions, who then use the dues to back their favorite candidates and also lobby for bigger government and more pay and benefits," Mr. Siegel told me. After New York City's Transport Workers Union lost the right to automatic dues collection in 2007 following an illegal strike, its income fell by more than 35% as many members stopped ponying up. New York City ended the dues collection ban after 18 months.
Myron Lieberman, a former Minnesota public school teacher who became a contract negotiator for the American Federation of Teachers, says that since the 1960s collective bargaining has so "greatly increased the political influence of unions" that they block the sorts of necessary change that other elements of society have had to accept.
The labor laws that Wisconsin unions are so bitterly defending were popular during an era of industrialization and centralization. But the labor organizations they protect have become much less popular, as the declining membership of many private-sector unions attests. Moreover, it's become abundantly clear that too many government workers enjoy wages, benefits and pensions that are out of line with the rest of the economy.
Mr. Walker's argument—that public workers shouldn't be living high off the hog at the expense of taxpayers—is being made in other states facing budget crises. But the left observed the impact of the tea party last year and seems determined to unleash a more aggressive version of its own by teaming up with union allies. Organizing for America is already coordinating protests against proposed reforms in Ohio, Michigan and Missouri.