By Jack Kelly, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Labor unions fight on in Wisconsin, as the Germans did during the bitter winter of 1944-1945. But the war is lost.
To see how grim is the outlook for public employee unions, let's go to Detroit, where Mayor Dave Bing proposed Tuesday a budget which would cut contributions to public employee health plans by 20 percent and would skip a payment to city pension funds.
"If we do nothing, by 2015 fringe benefits are on pace to consume half of our entire general fund revenue," Mr. Bing said. "We cannot afford benefit packages so rich, nor can we afford to protect the interests of 30,000 people at the expense of 700,000."
Mayor Bing is a Democrat in a heavily Democratic city. Yet he has gone "all Scott Walker" on public employee unions, said Matt Continetti of the Weekly Standard.
Scott Walker is Wisconsin's Republican governor, and Wisconsin is to public employee unions what Stalingrad was to the Nazis: the site of their first major defeat.
Democratic state senators fled the state to try to prevent a vote on Gov. Walker's bill to trim the power of public employee unions. But GOP lawmakers braved massive protests and death threats to pass it.
So Maryann Sumi, a circuit court judge in liberal Dane County (Madison), whose son is a labor organizer, issued an injunction to keep the law from going into effect.
Wisconsin's attorney general appealed. Courts can't interfere with the legislative process before a bill becomes law, J.B. Van Hollen said. The case was sent to the state supreme court.
Two supreme court precedents supported his arguments, and conservatives held a 4-3 majority on the supreme court, so the attorney general felt confident.
But Justice David Prosser, a conservative, was up for re-election April 5. Unions poured millions of dollars into the campaign of his opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg.
On election night, with an unofficial lead of just 204 votes, Ms. Kloppenburg claimed victory.
She was premature. The tally from the heavily Republican city of Brookfield was accidentally omitted when unofficial returns were reported to the Associated Press. Mr. Prosser won by 7,316 votes, according to a canvass of all of Wisconsin's counties completed April 15.
Because the election was so close, the state will pay for a recount if the loser requests it, as Ms. Kloppenburg did Wednesday. This keeps hope alive among liberal diehards, but likely will result only in a further waste of taxpayer money. The largest margin ever overturned by a recount in Wisconsin was less than 500 votes.
It isn't the modest cuts in contributions to health and pension plans in Gov. Walker's bill labor leaders object to most. It isn't even the restriction of collective bargaining to wages only. It's the provision which makes payment of union dues voluntary.
This is a body blow to Democrats, too. They depend heavily on unions to fill their campaign coffers.
Union bosses already have spent gobs of money in Wisconsin, to no avail. They'll spend more trying to recall Republican state senators. If 20 percent of their members decide not to pay dues, they'll be hurting in 2012.
As people learn how lavish their benefits are, support for public employee unions diminishes. A poll taken in March for Investors Business Daily indicated Americans supported the unions over Mr. Walker, 49 percent to 43 percent. This month, respondents to the IBD poll backed limits on collective bargaining rights, 45 percent to 42 percent.
If persuasion isn't working, maybe threats will. Herb Sanders is president of a local in Michigan of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. At a protest at the state capitol April 13, he told an interviewer:
"If necessary, we will use the valuable public service jobs that we perform as a weapon and shut this state down."
So, some public employee unions may try to win public support by attacking the public.
Though thuggery is unappealing to most Americans, union bosses will win some fights. But they'll be rear guard actions like those fought by the Nazis during their retreats to the Rhine and the Elbe. We're flat broke. This dooms them.
It may also doom the Democratic Party, which is a coalition of special interest groups with little more in common than their desire to feed from the public trough. Now that there is less loot for them to split, they may turn on each other.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1476). More articles by this author