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Fighting public unions, saving the future

Tribune-Review
| Monday, November 17, 2014 9:00 p.m

Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, took on public employee unions about to sink the state and reduced their bullying powers sufficiently to save the government billions and help rejuvenate a tepid economy.

Despite a variety of retaliatory efforts by the unions and rival politicians to then sink him, he rose high, he overcame and, in the recent elections, was happily victorious.

Three other Republican governors beat back intense opposition from public unions they had challenged — Rick Scott in Florida, John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Snyder in Michigan. That’s major, but the story does not end with Republicans.

For yet more reason to applaud, look to Democrat Gina Raimondo, who, as Rhode Island’s treasurer, reduced pension costs that could not be long endured at the rate they were growing. She alertly, expertly, courageously and successfully pushed for the necessary state laws to correct the trajectory and this year ran for governor. Some unions vowed to cripple her ambitions and definitely tried. She won anyway.

We are on course to being saved from the seemingly immovable power of the unions to distort democracy, devastate finances, render governmental operations less efficient and even, in some cases, cheat children out of the kind of education necessary for them to have a decent future.

The problem with the unions has not been that their members are somehow bad human beings happily doing damage to others for their own sake. In negotiations, unions reasonably enough aim for the best they can get. What then usually happens in the private sector — and not enough in the public sector — is that management will finally agree to no more than it can afford.

In the public sector, unions deal with often corruptible politicians whose elections they can help assure. They can do this with heaps of cash — teachers unions this past year spent $60 million helping election campaigns — and by getting out the vote for those who cooperated and fighting fiercely against those who did not.

Even when the officeholders are more or less honest, they can be irresponsible, neglecting to think through the ramifications of the deals they make and especially favoring lavish, feel-happy bargains when the good times roll. It is when you have bad times, such as the fiscal crisis and ensuing recession in 2008, that everyone notices what a jam they have gotten us into.

Money, of course, is not the only issue. Reports on a new book by Joel Klein, New York City’s former chancellor of public schools, point to some of his concerns, such as how union contracts made it impossibly difficult to fire teachers. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni notes, it could take more than two years and cost more than $300,000 to do the deed.

The outcomes of the latest elections signal to the political class that it is possible to do what’s right. Much has already been accomplished in a number of states and localities, but resolve is not always so easy in the absence of heroes like Walker, Raimondo and American voters who had the wisdom to ratify their good deeds.

Jay Ambrose is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.

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