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Slow and Steady Wins the Race

After the dramatic rightward shift in 2010 swept a wave of Republican governors and legislators into office, the country has seen a flurry of new conservative initiatives. One year later, the voters have spoken again: in Arizona, Mississippi and most importantly in Ohio they are saying too much, too extreme, too fast. The New York Times reports:

A year after Republicans swept legislatures across the country, voters in Ohio delivered their verdict Tuesday on a centerpiece of the conservative legislative agenda, striking down a law that restricted public workers’ rights to bargain collectively.

The landslide vote to repeal the bill — 62 percent to 38 percent, according to preliminary results from Ohio’s secretary of state — was a slap to Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican who had championed the law as a tool for cities to cut costs. The bill passed in March on a wave of enthusiasm among Republicans fresh from victories. A similar bill also passed in Wisconsin. […]

Republicans who watched the campaign on the union measure said it was doomed from the start. The law was a frontal assault on one of the most sacred principles for Democrats: the right of organized labor to collectively bargain. Defeating the repeal campaign would have required near-universal Republican support, which was not there because some registered Republicans opposed the law. […]

Labor fought harder, observers said, because its stakes were higher. We Are Ohio, the main group that opposed the law, poured about $30 million into the campaign, said Melissa Fazekas, the group’s spokeswoman, and had about 17,000 volunteers out over the weekend knocking on doors to persuade residents to go out and vote. The main group supporting the bill, Building a Better Ohio, said it spent just under $8 million.

Ohio needs serious government reform, but Governor Kasich and his Republican allies are now farther from achieving that than they were a year ago.  Moving more deliberately and carefully would have gotten more done and done more good.

Via Meadia takes the view that public sector workers should not be able to engage in collective bargaining in the same way that private sector workers can.  It is not because government workers are lesser people, or greedier, but because of a political fact of life.  Government workers can organize and participate in elections for the people with whom they then negotiate their wages; their unions can and frequently do make large campaign contributions to the very politicians who will later sit with them at the bargaining table.  These are rights that private sector workers do not have.  The right of government workers to form political associations and to lobby for their interests in the political process is a constitutional one that Via Meadia holds sacred.  But one bite at the apple is enough.

However, where such unions exist and have existed for a long time, and are considered legitimate and important by the people of the state, it is not always the wisest policy to go after them.  Instead, states ought to follow a more measured approach. Strong arguments can be made for cutting spending and changing work rules for public workers. Public sector unions remain the main obstacle to these changes, and they continue to have a largely negative influence on state politics and budgets. Yet voters, especially in many Midwestern battleground states, are small-c conservative and likely to remain so — while they support lower taxes and balanced budgets, they also oppose radical change. Reform-minded state governors should balance budgets and take tough stands in negotiations, but they should move at a speed public opinion can bear. Voters are unhappy with the status quo, but they are equally wary of overreach.  This is a sentiment that conservatives ought to respect.

It is worth noting that both Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo and Republicans like Chris Christie have found ways to push hard at the bargaining table and make real cuts without forfeiting wider support in their states.  Festina lente, as they used to tell me in Pundit High: make haste slowly.  The facts will ultimately do the talking even in labor negotiations.  Voters may not want to eliminate public sector bargaining rights in many states, but neither do they want large tax hikes so that the unions can have everything they want.

As regular readers know, this blog believes that sweeping reforms are needed to retool this country for the new century.  But in a democratic society like ours, public opinion must be consulted and considered.  Zealotry, I am happy to say, remains a losing political strategy in most American elections; that is a good thing overall, however impatient it may sometimes make the advocates of particular changes.

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  • Kenny

    Public sector unions should be outlawed

  • Joshua Chamberlain

    Notwithstanding the threatened “government shutdown” and a deficit of over 10% of GDP, Federal spending will rise this year. These are all signs that the American people will not get serious about cutting government until we are in a Greek and Italian-style crisis. What you call a prudent desire to avoid extremism I call a head in the sand unwillingness to deal with reality, even when the economy sucks and no one can find a job. I am not optimistic.

  • ms

    Wisconsin seems to have adopted a wiser policy by exempting police and fire fighters from the ban on collective bargaining.

  • john vrklan

    The Ohio election proved the point about overreach, twice. The issue regarding collective bargaining, and the individual mandate in Obamacare. Both soundly defeated by the same margin, by the same constituency.

  • Charles R. Williams

    Kasich is doing the right things in Ohio with the exception that he is rubbing people the wrong way unnecessarily. The groundwork was not properly laid for Senate Bill 5. People saw it as unfair to public sector workers – their friends, neighbors and family members. He may end up as the one term governor who put Ohio on the road to prosperity and got tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail. Kasich is to Chris Christie as sandpaper is to silk.

  • Stephen

    The good professor may well be right – and it may not matter a bit: Italy.

    You can make the same statements about Italy, its voters and politicians with regard the medicine the EU is dispensing, and it matters not a whit because the bond market doesn’t care what politicians or voters think.

    The problem in Ohio is the same as the problem in California and Illinois, which is the same as that in Rhode Island about which much has been written in this blog. It isn’t what unions and their membership may demand in the future, it’s what they’ve been granted in the past. If states and cities can’t escape the inexorable compounding of debt those earlier commitments entail then bankruptcy, that great leveler, will take them all. Ask Harrisburg. Ohio’s voters may be comforted with their vote but the compounding of debt and the municipal bond market care not a bit. The voters have chosen comfort and a sense of security: they will secure neither.

  • Lorenzo from Oz

    The Australian experience is that you are correct: slow, steady grinding away is what generally works in a democratic polity.

  • Toni

    “Voters are unhappy with the status quo, but they are equally wary of overreach. This is a sentiment that conservatives ought to respect.”

    I wish it had been a sentiment liberals respected in the three years they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. Instead, perhaps first among abominations, they gave us ObamaCare — which was also soundly disapproved by those same Ohio voters.

  • Charles R. Williams

    The failure of Senate Bill 5 is the result of political incompetence. The case has simply not been made to Ohioans that public sector unions are a threat to the economic viability of their state. The typical voter sees it as a matter of fairness. Why shouldn’t govt workers be able to bargain just like private sector workers. I know the answer but the typical voter has not even engaged the argument.

  • Paul

    The real issue was that the state of Ohio would no longer automatically deduct union dues from salaries. The unions would have to collect on their own. Once that happens, membership drops by two thirds. If Kaisich had made forced payment of dues an issue and let the others alone, he might have won. The unions would then collapse on their own.

  • John Burke

    A seldom noted facet of this issue is that there are a great many state and municipal employees who do not have union contracts — many tens of thousands in New York State alone.

    Yet, elected public officials at every level dish out generous salaries, benefits and pensions to these folks too! Not to mention creating more such jobs.

    It is not clear to me that collective bargaining has as much to do with lavish public sector compensation as some contend. Politics, yes.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    This isn’t the end of the issue, the labor gangs are on the defensive, and had to spend $30 million, 3 times what the other side spent just to get back to the unsustainable status quo. Ohio will suffer compared to more responsible states, and the next time, and there will be a next time, the labor gangs will have a much harder time of it.

  • Glen

    The real message from Ohioans’ rejection of SB 5 is fundamentally a libertarian one. The balance of power in this referendum was held by those who perceived the State as attempting to deny a fundamental right to a subset of the citizenry.

    For better or worse, a majority of Americans believe that they have a right to collective bargaining. This does not mean that Ohioans are oblivious to the problems with public sector pay – instead, they refuse to solve the problem by stripping these workers of “inalienable rights.” Successful politicians will understand this dynamic, and develop strategies that bring public sector spending inline with what the private sector wants – rather than what it can bear.

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