New York politicians should heed the message of this week's Wisconsin recall election: You can defy the public-sector labor machine and live to tell the tale.
While there are obvious demographic and political differences, New York and Wisconsin are far from polar opposites. Liberal-leaning New York has long been the nation's most heavily unionized state, but progressive Wisconsin has long been labor-friendly -- indeed, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was born in Madison, almost 80 years ago.
Nonetheless, backed by a GOP legislative majority, Republican Gov. Scott Walker achieved the once-unthinkable: eliminating the automatic payroll deduction of public employee union dues, ending collective bargaining of working conditions and benefits, and raising employee pension contributions. (Police and firefighter unions were carefully excluded from the changes.)
A former county executive, Walker argued that his collective bargaining reforms would give local governments more flexibility to cope with shrinking revenues in the aftermath of the recession. The state's school districts, in particular, reportedly have realized large savings since the new law took effect last year.
Democrats noted that exit polls of Tuesday's recall voters indicated President Barack Obama was still favored over Mitt Romney in Wisconsin -- but the same polls showed Walker's opponent had been rejected by moderates and independents, not just conservatives and Republicans. In the future, public-sector unions across the country will find it increasingly difficult to claim their critics are motivated solely by ideological or partisan bias. Further evidence of the trend comes from California, where voters in San Diego and San Jose overwhelmingly approved reductions in public pension benefits.
Walker's campaign vastly outspent the opposition, a factor unions are also blaming for their defeat. But if money alone dictated elections, New Yorkers would now be looking back on the political accomplishments of Tom Golisano, the upstate billionaire who spent close to $100 million on unsuccessful runs for governor in 1994, 1998 and 2002.
Besides, the union intimidation factor in politics rests less on dollars than on fears of organized labor's vaunted campaign ground game. As expected, Wisconsin unions turned out an army of volunteers from throughout the country, including the Empire State. Yet it still wasn't enough.
As it happens, New York recently marked the 45th anniversary of its Taylor Law, which granted collective bargaining rights to state and local employees. The law outlawed public employee strikes but also granted unions a broad array of legal privileges, subsequently fortified by decades of pro-union administrative and collective bargaining precedents. Seventy-five percent of New York's public sector is unionized -- easily the highest union coverage level of any state, federal statistics indicate -- and the political power of public employee unions is commensurate with that number.
Desperate for labor savings, which they have little leverage to achieve without disruptive layoffs, mayors and county executives declaring fiscal emergencies often look like they're making hostage tapes. Across New York, elected officials have come to treat unions as a fourth branch of government. No one bats an eye when an embattled executive like Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano pledges to "partner with our labor unions and City Council" to avoid bankruptcy.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is widely perceived as pushing back against union power after negotiating tough deals with the two largest state employee groups and pushing through both a tax cap and pension reform over union opposition. In reality, Cuomo's bark is generally worse than his bite -- but the bark alone has helped earn him some of the highest public approval ratings pollsters have ever recorded in New York.
While he'd never go as far as Walker, Cuomo should now be more willing to push for overdue Taylor Law reforms, starting with repeal of the Triborough Amendment, which locks in automatic pay hikes after expiration of contracts. And local officials should rally round the cause. After all, they have nothing to lose but their shackles.
E.J. McMahon is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy.