Turns out there is such a thing as bad publicity. School districts across Wisconsin have closed because of the number of teachers calling in sick. They aren’t sick, of course. They are in the state capital Madison to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed labor policy changes. This is not a good way to get parents on one’s side. If anything, many parents scrambling to find and pay for daycare are livid.
The protesters — thousands of them — have dominated the news for the last few days. Everyone wants to hear what they have to say. So even if they lose a few parents, they can gain an entire nation. Not a bad tradeoff.
The problem is that the more people learn about public sector unions, the less sympathy they get. This week’s publicity explosion is hurting the unions, not helping them. An online Milwaukee Journal Sentinel poll shows that 59 percent of Wisconsonites support Gov. Walker’s proposals, up from 57 percent just the day before.
It’s not just Wisconsin. A nationwide Clarus Group poll found that 64 percent of Americans don’t think public sector workers should be able to organize, period.
People are learning a lot this week. They’re learning that in Wisconsin, unionized public sector workers don’t pay anything into their pensions or toward their health care costs. Most private sector workers don’t enjoy those kinds of perks — yet they aren’t taking to the streets.
Gov. Walker’s proposal would require government employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their wages to their pensions and 12.6 percent toward health care costs. Both figures are still quite generous; on average, private sector workers pay about twice that. Those add up to a combined pay cut of 7 to 11 percent. That isn’t chump change, but it isn’t apocalyptic, either.
People are also learning that, nationwide, unionized state government workers have 31 percent higher salaries than non-unionized government workers and receive 68 percent more in benefits. Even with an 11-percent benefit cut, the unionized portion of Wisconsin’s government workforce would still cost more for taxpayers to maintain than in other states.
People are learning that in addition to premium pay, unionized public sector workers enjoy premium job security. In the private sector, people get fired if they’re bad at their jobs. In the public sector, they get reassigned. The worst workers are also guaranteed to get the exact same raises and perks that the best employees get.
Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute likes to draw a dichotomy between tax eaters and tax payers. People are learning which side public sector unions are on. Not only do their members rely on taxpayer dollars for their salaries and benefits, but the unions themselves spend enormous amounts of money lobbying for more government spending — and thus more government workers to unionize and collect dues from.
Unfortunately, tax eaters have friends in both parties. Republican Gov. Walker’s labor proposals are certainly taxpayer-friendly, but his party deserves plenty of blame for helping state spending grow by 50 percent over the last decade.
If Gov. Walker wins his standoff with Democratic legislators, he will be in for a massive popularity boost. He is already gaining a national profile from the saturation coverage in Madison. All the publicity from teacher sickouts, protests outside the state capitol, and legislators fleeing the state is doing irreparable damage to public sector unions’ image. Politicians who aren’t too indebted to unions may even turn against them for fear of losing the next election.
Taxpayers may not be as vocal or as organized as tax eaters, but there are a lot more of them. Sometimes all it takes to mobilize them is a little bad publicity.
Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.