March 1, 2011

Columnist doesn't grasp Wisconsin union debate

"United state" (February 25) over-states proposed changes to Wisconsin's union rules

In his February 25 article “United state,” Colin Bradley argues that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker ginned up a pension problem as political cover for rescinding collective bargaining rights of state employees. According to Bradley, Walker simply “has it out for unions.”

Bradley tries to claim that Wisconsin’s pension system is solvent by citing a Pew survey that found Wisconsin with a very minimal unfunded liability. However, that Pew survey uses numbers from 2007, before the 2008 stock market nosedive cut assets by a third or more. According to the most recent numbers, Wisconsin has assets of $58.4 billion and stated liabilities of $79.7 billion. Roughly only 75 percent of the pension is funded. Yes, other states have it worse (Illinois is 43 percent-funded), but that only serves to demonstrate how universal of a problem this is.

However, these measurements do not properly account for risk. Northwestern University economist Joshua Rauh has rightly questioned how states calculate liabilities and has estimated that Wisconsin’s liabilities are actually $114.6 billion. Bradley claims that Wisconsin is 99.67 percent-funded when 51 percent is probably more realistic. That’s an awfully deep hole that taxpayers are obligated to fill.

So what does this have to do with collective bargaining?

These generous pensions are the product of the undue influence of public sector unions. Public sector unions are able to be both lobbies and unions. They can (and do) spend on campaigns, as is the right of any American. But they also directly negotiate with their politician employers, to some of whom they have contributed. Thus they take the public’s business out of the public eye. It is no wonder that the benefit promises of state employees so far outpace those of the private sector.

Governor Walker is trying to make Wisconsin the 25th state in the union to in some way limit collective bargaining for state employees. He would retain collective bargaining for wages, just not for benefits. He probably has it out for the public employee unions less than other famous union-busters Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George Meany, first president of the AFL-CIO, both of whom opposed all collective bargaining in the public sector.

But what turns Bradley’s article from silly to grotesque is his linking of the revolutions and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain with the protests in Madison. Perhaps Mr. Bradley thinks that decades-long autocracies, some, like Libya’s, among the most oppressive on earth, are akin to elected governors proposing bills that rescind partial collective bargaining in order to increase the amount of public business done by elected representatives in the public eye. If so, I hope the remainder of Mr. Bradley’s time at the University of Chicago will help alleviate his intense moral confusion.

Jeremy Rozansky

Class of 2012