The Real Stakes in Wisconsin

Walker's war on the public unions could change the game across the U.S. in 2012

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Illustration by Dan Page for TIME

If you don't look too closely, the battle lines between Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, and his state's public employees' unions seem to be clearly drawn. Walker wants public employees to pay more toward their health care and retirement benefits, while teachers and public workers howl that Walker's plan to curb most collective bargaining is a malicious plot to bust up their unions.

Of course neither side wants to discuss what is really at stake in this battle: the public-sector unions are fighting for their shady ability to take millions of dollars from their members' dues money without really asking, and the governor is not really owning up to his ambition to smash the political power of public employees' unions to smithereens.

The stakes are rising because, if Walker succeeds, other swing states with newly elected Republican governors, such as Ohio and Michigan, could follow. A growing movement by cash-strapped states to limit the political clout of public-sector unions would bring disastrous results, not only for the unions but for every Democratic candidate eyeing the 2012 ballot, from local officials all the way up to Barack Obama.

Walker has a strong case on the fiscal merits. The cost of state employees' benefits has skyrocketed in tandem with the rising power of public employees' unions. It has become a perverse and semicorrupt arrangement: the unions raise millions from dues, which are then used to elect labor-friendly politicians who cave at the contract-negotiating table, especially on long-term employment deals, whose cost really begins to crush the state or city budget in the years after the agreeable politician has left office. This is where public-sector unions lack the moral authority of their private-sector brethren. When the United Steelworkers negotiate with a steel company, they don't also control the company's board of directors.

Few Americans understand how the public-employee-union money machine works. Many unionized state and local public workers have their dues automatically deducted from their paychecks. On average, a teacher in Wisconsin pays more than $1,000 per year to the union (from an average salary of $51,264). A decent chunk of this money is used to fund political activities. That doesn't mean just making contributions. It also means running lavish independent ad campaigns in support of their chosen candidates and against their opponents. Even Democratic candidates who oppose union priorities can face massively funded negative campaigns targeting them in primaries. Engaging in such well-funded political activity is the unions' right, of course, but their immense financial power means they are bringing a machine gun to a fistfight.

Can rank-and-file employees opt out of their unions' political spending? They can, but they have to ask for that exemption, and few do. The system is set up to allow the unions' political barons to easily skim big money from dues with very little member involvement. Under Walker's proposal, employees have to opt into their union and its dues every year; nothing is automatic. Union leaders fear that few rank-and-file members would do so, and their political machines would quickly grind to a halt. And if Walker wins his battle in Wisconsin, it could become a game changer for the GOP as other states follow suit.

This brutal battle of political realpolitik is why both sides in Madison are dug in deep, hanging from the rafters of the Wisconsin state capitol and vowing to fight to the death. National labor and interest groups are funding TV ads trying to push public opinion in Wisconsin to one side or the other. (Disclosure: I work with a communications firm doing some of the pro-Walker ads. I also belong to a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.)

Both sides have polls showing they are winning, but the ground truth is murkier. Walker is prevailing in the argument over the budget. But the unions have cleverly begun to defend what they call the right of collective bargaining. That move is as politically effective as it is factually dubious. Collective bargaining for public employees didn't begin to gain strength until the 1960s, when growing union power (and Democratic statehouses) conspired to adopt it. Two generations later, only 26 states allow collective bargaining for most public employees, and this "right" has largely not been extended to federal workers.

Like all political battles, the Wisconsin fight will come down to numbers. I'm betting on Walker. He has the votes.

Murphy is a Republican political consultant.