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The recall election fight facing Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is at bottom a fight over government unions, who are outraged that Walker has somewhat diminished their ability to feed off the public purse. And government unions are at bottom one of the greatest threats to civil society – whether civil society makes you think of entrepreneurs expanding their businesses or of nonprofit groups serving the poor and subsisting on government grants.

Forbes columnist Peter Ferrara goes even further and calls government unions a threat to democracy itself, because the Walker recall election hinges on

whether we should establish in law after all these years a new aristocracy in America, not subject to the democratic will of the people like everyone else, with special legal privileges, including the right to plunder the taxpayers with virtual impunity. That new aristocracy is state and local government public employee unions.

Nationwide, he continues, “these public employee unions plunder taxpayers” for pay that averages “45% more than the taxpayers paying those salaries make in the private sector.” Ferrara cites a Manhattan Institute study by E.J. McMahon that found Milwaukee public school teachers received family health coverage worth $26,844 annually – and paid zero dollars for it. Now that Dracula – I mean, Governor Walker – has cruelly oppressed Wisconsin’s government workers, they must pay 12.6% of the cost of their health insurance, while the remaining 87.4% is paid by taxpayers who themselves pay on average 21% of the cost of their own health insurance in the private sector.

No wonder the Recall Walker folks aren’t talking about the restrictions on collective bargaining that he helped enact, and only 12% of Wisconsin voters told Marquette pollsters that “restoring collective bargaining rights for public employees” is their priority (hat tip to William McGurn).

The ones really doing well are the unions themselves and their privileged bosses. As Christian Schneider of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute observes:

if the Sierra Club or NRA want to influence elections, they have to find members, solicit them, and keep them on board. But public sector unions have to do none of this … state laws mandate union participation, thus making dues compulsory. Taxpayers pay taxes to pay for public employees, whose wages are then garnished and sent to union leaders, who spend that money to elect officials that will vote for higher taxes to pay higher wages and hire more union members. Wash, rinse, repeat.       These mandatory dues add up. In 2010, according to [Daniel DiSalvo of the Manhattan Institute], the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) reported [a nationwide] income of $211,806,537; the National Education Association (NEA; a major teachers’ union) received $397,953,771.

And the dukes and duchesses atop these feudal fiefdoms did well for themselves, too. Gerald McEntee, international president of AFSCME, for instance, earns a princely salary of $512,369.

The greed of these unions is a major factor in the melt-down of many state and local governments’ budgets, which means the discretionary government grants so critical to many nonprofits are drying up, as governments divert revenues into benefits and salaries for current and retired government workers. And thanks to the latter group, things will get much worse.

Two members of Congress note that

Some jurisdictions around the U.S. already spend more money on retired workers than on current employees, and more on retired teachers than on existing students and schools.

Consider these chilling numbers from California, a state in profound financial decline. The invaluable Education Intelligence Agency (EIA) reports on the insatiable California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS):

In 2001, CalSTRS paid teachers under $4 billion in benefits. Ten years later, that figure is more than $10.2 billion.

If that sounds bad, there’s more:

CalSTRS currently pays benefits to some 253,000 retired teachers and surviving family members. There are more than 603,000 teachers who still work or have worked in the public schools and will be eligible for pensions when they retire.

Meanwhile, notes McGurn, Governor Jerry Brown, who gave the state’s government unions collective bargaining rights when he last held that office, has announced that the state’s new budget deficit will be $16 billion, or “nearly twice the $9.2 billion he predicted.”

Much more easily predicted, of course, is the further harm this will do, both to entrepreneurial businessmen and also to nonprofit service providers with financial ties to state and local governments.

The unionist-government complex is so out of control it is now eating its own. That is to say, the very states that have let this fiscal kudzu strangle their budgets are now having to throw government workers out of their jobs. In Nevada, for instance, EIA notes that the Clark County branch of the NEA won its arbitration assault on the school district, which must continue to pay mindless automatic salary raises, yet the district’s hemorrhaging budget deficit means that these escalating salaries will force layoffs of as many as 1,000 members of the county’s union to close the gap.

Similarly, three Wisconsin school districts still fighting Walker’s reforms are laying off teachers and other government workers, even as all the rest of the state’s school districts are not laying workers off, thanks to those reforms. As Ferrara explains,

Walker’s collective bargaining reforms have added up to over $1 billion in documented savings for state and local governments in Wisconsin in the first year alone. That enabled the entire state deficit to be eliminated.

 You see, when Walker limited collective bargaining to salaries, but not benefits, working conditions, or rules, he gave

counties, cities, and school boards the flexibility to make management changes to reduce costs, without laying off workers and reducing services to the public, and to increase efficiency in serving the public.

Here’s the final irony, again courtesy of EIA. It seems one entity in California has cracked the code of fiscal sanity so as to safeguard its future – the California Teachers Association. And how has it accomplished this? By deciding not to raise its “taxes,” i.e. member dues, for the 2012-13 school year, and by balancing its budget with $1 million in spending cuts.

Is Governor Walker moonlighting in Sacramento?

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