In 1919, after Boston police went on strike to protest the city’s refusal to recognize their new union, Gov. Calvin Coolidge ordered the National Guard into the streets.
Sam Gompers, the legendary father of American labor, wrote the governor that the Boston police had been denied their rights.
Coolidge’s terse reply put him in our history books:
“Your assertion that the Commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded. … There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.”
Ronald Reagan’s firing of the striking air traffic controllers, whose union had been among the few to endorse him, marked him as a leader willing to act against a powerful union if the public interest commands it.
Gov. Scott Walker is now in that tradition. He has just routed a recall campaign that began with state senators disgracefully fleeing to Illinois rather than provide a quorum and mobs occupying his capitol.
Walker’s victory is a fire bell in the night for the public-sector unions. It reflects a rising realization among all Western peoples that to continue accommodating the demands of government unions is to risk our survival as free and prosperous nations.
The Badger State rout of Big Labor was total.
The public-employee unions first capitulated to the governor’s demand that they contribute more to their pensions and health care benefits. But they drew the line at Walker’s determination to curtail collective bargaining and to cease deducting union dues from the paychecks of state workers.
Collect your dues yourself, the governor was telling the unions.
With their union dues no longer taken out of their paychecks, tens of thousands of Wisconsin public employees refused to pony up those dues and quit their union, instead. What does this tell us?
Many union members do not believe they get their money’s worth from unions that claim to represent them, and would prefer to get out of the union and keep the dues money themselves.
This desertion by their members represents a massive vote of no confidence in unions like the America Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers. AFSCME in Wisconsin lost 34,000 of its 62,000 members last year alone.
From the Wisconsin experience, if right-to-work laws were enacted in every state, giving employees freedom to join or leave a union, public-employee unions would be abandoned, reduced to shadows of what they are today. What does it say about a union if its members would prefer not to belong, if they were free to leave?
The curtailment of collective bargaining is the issue on which Walker appeared to be on the weakest ground, as school kids are taught that collective bargaining is a sacrosanct right.
Yet here, too, the governor has a compelling argument.
When union leaders put piles of cash into political campaigns, and union bosses then sit down to bargain with the people they have just put into office, who represents the public?
Is there not an inherent conflict of interest when unions literally purchase with campaign contributions the election of officials with whom they are to negotiate the new contracts for their members?
There are other reasons public-employee unions are losing public support. The pay and benefits of federal employees are twice that of the average private-sector worker, while the pay and benefits of state employees are half again as high. And government workers enjoy a job security few private-sector workers ever know.
Unionized government workers are seen by almost no one as victims. Yet their numbers are huge.
Where there were twice as many Americans working in manufacturing as in government in 1960, today the reverse is true. We have 22 million workers in government and 11 million in manufacturing.
This is an immense and costly army for taxpayers to sustain.
Even Democrats, though they howl that we must milk the rich more, are starting to concede that the government sector, now at a peacetime record 37 percent of the gross domestic product, must be pared back.
The salad days of the government employee are coming to an end, as they have already in Greece, Italy and Spain.
As Europe went farther down that “road to socialism” than did we, the pain there will be greater. But it is coming here, too.
Already, states and cities have begun cutting their labor force. And the states that were most indulgent in providing pay and benefits their taxpayers could not afford are the states being hit hardest, like Barack Obama’s Illinois and Jerry Brown’s California.
The anger and accusations of union leaders, directed at Gov. Walker, testify to their shocked awareness of the new political realities.
And Obama’s conspicuous absence from the battlefield — he sent a tweet and did a flyover — testifies to his recognition that while government unions may be his loyal political allies, they are also an albatross hanging around his neck this November.