Dems vs. unions: It's on
Next to the drama in Washington, the big political story in 2011 will be the struggle to rein in public-sector unions, whose pay, pensions and health benefits are bankrupting some of the biggest states in the country. Today's Wall Street Journal contained a tough op-ed on public-sector unionism by Minnesota's Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a presidential hopeful. Neighboring Wisconsin's ascendant Republicans may try to end collective bargaining for public workers in that state. But GOP moves against public employee unions, the core constituency of the Democratic Party, are no surprise. What's really interesting, as I've written, somewhat obsessively, is the looming struggle between budget-cutting Democrats and the unions.
This is the contest that will determine whether Democrats can survive as a party with a broad political base at the state level, by putting the sustainability of vital public services ahead of the unions' demands -- or whether they will allow their public-sector union allies to drag them into a political death spiral of endless deficits, higher taxes, sluggish growth and declining services.
And the contest has already begun. On a small scale, right in the Washington area, there's the clash between the Montgomery County Council and its public employee unions over proposed legislation to make arbitrators give the county's sorry fiscal situation top consideration when deciding the size of the unions' next contract package. Proposed by Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring, usually a reliable labor ally, the bill has drawn preliminary support from most of the rest of the council, including a newcomer, Hans Riemer, who won his seat with union backing. Riemer's stance prompted this thuggish outburst from the county employees' union leader, Gino Renne: "You're going to be a one-termer, pal. Welcome to the big leagues."
On a much grander stage, there's New York Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo's successful effort to recruit business support for his pending battle with that state's public-sector unions. The business community is raising $10 million to counter the expected union ad campaign. Even more striking, Cuomo has the backing of the 100,000-member Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which, according to the New York Times, argues that healthier state finances and lower taxes will spur development and construction work. "This is not about bashing public-sector unions," that union's chief said. "But without a fiscally sound environment, we will not be able to attract new businesses to the city; we'll continue to lose business."
He's right, of course. The question is: Have state and local governments reached a tipping point, at which the benefits to Democratic politicians -- campaign contributions, mainly -- from currying favor with public sector unions no longer outweigh the costs -- bankruptcy, taxpayer outrage, etc.? Who really runs state and local government in America: the people, through their elected representatives, or the bureaucrats, through their unions? In "blue" jurisdictions from Albany to Rockville, Md., we are about to find out.
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