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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes


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 From the new issue of Wisconsin Interest Magazine (I'm the editor), Christian Schneider explains the bold move behind the union reform legislation.



But salaries are only a part of the picture. Consider that in the 16 years prior to Hortonville, average state per-pupil spending increased 6.7% per year. Post-strike, it jumped to 9.6% per year in the 16 years following the Hortonville clash.

Through collective bargaining, WEAC obtained concessions from management that appeared to have little fiscal effect, but in the long run greatly benefited its members.

It was in the early 1970s, for example, that local government employees across the state started to see taxpayers picking up the full cost of pension benefits — the very practice Gov. Walker fought against in his budget-repair bill.

In the ’70s, union leaders were figuring out the value of benefits; many of labor’s decision-makers were older and needed health and pension benefits more than the rank and file. They recognized that benefits were often not taxed, meaning that teachers usually got more bang from a buck in benefits than from a buck in pay.

Other provisions benefiting unions followed. In 1973, Wisconsin enacted the “Educational Standards Bill,” establishing that all teachers must be certified by the state Department of Public Instruction, that every school district must provide kindergarten, special education, guidance counselors, and other measures.

Also in 1973, Milwaukee teachers negotiated a benefit that paid their health care premiums when they retired — in 2016, this benefit will be worth $4.9 billion, or more than four times the size of the Milwaukee district’s current budget.

Teachers represented by WEAC often demanded that their health premiums be provided by WEA Trust — their own health insurer — at a cost often greater than insurance on the private market. (Started in 1970, WEA Trust is now the fifth-largest health insurer in Wisconsin.)

In none of these cases of advancing teachers and their union were the long-term fiscal costs known. While Capitol protesters in February offered to give up some short-term financial considerations, it is this slow, steady, tectonic shift towards enriching and empowering public employees that Walker sought to decisively reverse.

Bottom line: Even in giving up ground on a few major points, the negotiating tide on work rules and other matters still favors government labor.

Today, K-12 education funding dwarfs the next-highest state spending program by a measure of 4-to-1. In 2011, Wisconsin spent $5.3 billion on public school aids, compared to $1.3 billion on Medical Assistance.

Give WEAC credit for having the most aggressive and most sophisticated bargainers. Give it credit for executing a long-term strategy to enrich its members. But the union has been so successful for so long that it has sown the seeds for a humbling comeuppance.

It was this seemingly inexorable march toward higher spending that Walker is trying to halt by disassembling an overly powerful and deeply entrenched union machine.
Upon taking office in 1959, Gov. Nelson called on politicians to “think and act anew.” And that’s exactly what Gov. Walker is doing.


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