On Tuesday, voters made clear that they are siding against public employee unions in the fight over employee benefits and collective bargaining. I’m not just talking about the solid, but not overwhelming, vote to retain Scott Walker as governor in Wisconsin. The really big defeat for the unions came in California, where voters in two big cities faced a stark choice between preserving public services and maintaining expensive benefits for government workers.
In both San Diego and San Jose, voters approved major overhauls of public-employee pensions. These proposals were not just to cut benefits for new hires, but to make existing workers accept either significantly lower benefits or pay much more in their own pension contributions — without subjecting such changes to collective bargaining.
In politically divided San Diego, the principal backers of the reform are Republicans. In heavily Democratic San Jose, they are Democrats. But in both cities, the measures passed by overwhelming margins — 66 percent in San Diego, 70 percent in San Jose — and over the vehement objections of public employee unions.
Both Republicans and Democrats are doing the same math: If you can’t get a handle on skyrocketing pension and health care costs, you can’t afford to provide all the services you used to. In the current fiscal year, San Jose will spend an eye-popping $142,000 on wages and benefits per full-time employee. That’s 85 percent higher than it was 10 years ago, driven mostly by increases in the cost of pensions and health care. As a result, the city has had to eliminate many jobs through attrition and layoffs. From 1986 to 2009, the city had an average of 7.5 employees per 1,000 residents; now it has only 5.6. A huge majority of San Jose voters opted to reverse that trend by reforming government employee compensation, even though public employee unions object.
In Wisconsin, of course, the fight over public employee benefits was far more partisan. Republicans sought not just to reduce unions’ power over municipal budgets, but also to take away unions’ own source of financing — and their source of campaign contributions for Democrats — by eliminating the automatic collection of dues.
Yet while Wisconsin’s Democratic elected officials have lined up with the unions, not all of its Democratic-leaning voters have. According to the exit polls, 18 percent of voters who plan to vote for Barack Obama in the fall backed Walker in the recall. Obama is ahead of Mitt Romney in Wisconsin. Without peeling off a significant chunk of Democratic support, Walker would have lost.
Why didn’t the Democratic coalition hold? Notably, Walker has promoted his reforms as freeing local governments to spend their money as they see fit — and some cities have used them to expand public services. Milwaukee, according to the Journal-Sentinel newspaper, had millions of dollars in savings that allowed it to add personnel, spend more on infrastructure, and restore library hours. Liberal voters seem to be recognizing this.
In states where Republicans have avoided making public employee benefits a hyperpartisan issue, the unions have even less political support. Labor’s best hope is to make the fight over bargaining and benefits a Red Team vs. Blue Team issue. Yet they were able to do this in Wisconsin, and it still didn’t quite work. And where Republicans are careful to work constructively with reform-minded Democrats on the issue, much broader coalitions can be built to overturn the status quo that the unions support.
Cross-partisan reform of public employee bargaining isn’t limited to California. Rhode Island’s heavily Democratic legislature and independent governor implemented the country’s most aggressive state-level pension reform last year, saving the state $4 billion over 20 years. And in Massachusetts, Governor Patrick and legislative Democrats worked together to restrict local employees’ ability to collectively bargain health benefits.
Democratic Mayor Chuck Reed expects San Jose’s pension reform to be copied widely. He told Fox News this week, “Mayors across the country are very interested. We’re at the leading edge but we’re not alone.” That should worry unions — but hearten taxpayers and those who depend on government services.