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Lawrence Reed Columnist

Published Thursday, June 07, 2012

What a little freedom of choice can do

Wisconsin is a very special place this week, and frankly, it will be so noted in the history books hereafter too.

Eighty years ago in 1932, it was the first state to allow government workers to unionize. With Gov. Scott Walker’s solid victory on Tuesday in a costly, ill-advised and union-inspired recall election, Wisconsin voters signaled they’ve had just about enough.

This was a really big deal, and the unions know it. They spent a fortune to defeat Walker. They’ve staged endless, ugly demonstrations against his collective bargaining changes that have generated big benefits for taxpayers, schools and municipalities. They put everything on the line — their already dismal reputation and lot of compulsory dues money — and they lost big time. There’s a message here: Even a liberal state in the industrial heartland can muster the courage and good sense to put Big Labor in its place.

Walker’s reforms in many ways were actually rather modest. The increase that he required union members to contribute toward their health care and retirement plans is still well below the standard in the private sector. The tools he gave local schools and governments to manage their budgets were nothing radical either, but the unions decided to go to war anyway.

But the governor’s victory is really not the most remarkable news from Wisconsin since his labor reforms took effect. That designation belongs to the union rank-and-file and how they’ve voted with their feet and their checkbooks. One of Walker’s fixes eliminated automatic dues collection, which means that the unions can’t grab workers’ money unless each worker personally approves it. Hold on to your hats, because these numbers are almost mind-blowing.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that in the year since workers have had the freedom to say “No thanks” to union dues, statewide membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union fell from 62,818 in March 2011 to just 28,745 this past February. That’s a reduction of more than half.

The membership fall-off in AFSCME Council 24, which the Journal says is the local that represents state workers (mostly in and around the capital of Madison) was even more astonishing. It plunged by two-thirds, from 22,300 to just 7,100. No doubt many of those very workers who opted to keep their money away from the union bosses are also very happy that Walker’s reforms balanced the state budget and cut their taxes as well.

In spite of all the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth by Big Labor, the Walker reforms were long overdue — in Wisconsin and in the many states that Tuesday’s vote will spur to act in similar fashion.

Giving workers freedom of choice in labor representation. What a beautiful, yet very simple thing with far-reaching consequences. Thank you, Wisconsin.

(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)

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