Walker and Reagan, standing firm

March 18, 2011 

— Watching events transpire between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the public employees unions, I am reminded of the air traffic controller strike of August 1981. It was a defining moment in President Ronald Reagan's first term.

Robert Poli, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), sought a $770 million compensation package for the controllers and a reduction in the work week. Reagan countered with a $40 million package for the unions. The offer was rejected, and the air traffic controllers went on strike.

Reagan considered the strike illegal and a threat to national safety. He warned the strikers they had 48 hours to return to work or he would fire them. When the majority of them didn't return, Reagan kept his word and terminated about 11,000 strikers. Commercial airline travel slowed but was not crippled as union leadership had predicted.

By and large, the American people supported Reagan's decision.

In this one defining moment, Reagan set the tone for his presidency - proving that keeping your word and sticking to your principles can also pay political dividends.

Reagan's firm stance also sent a message to foreign capitals that he had a core set of beliefs that were non-negotiable.

This brings me to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and his recent "PATCO moment" with the public employees. After weeks of protests by the unions and a disappearing act by 14 Democratic state senators who went into hiding across state lines in order to postpone a vote on union rights and pensions, Walker held firm and prevailed.

His victory over the public unions came to fruition when he signed the measure passed by the legislature that eliminates most bargaining rights for many state government workers.

It was widely seen as a setback by organized labor and its Democratic allies. Now debate about the role of public unions will continue in numerous other states. Already the fight has been enjoined in New York, Ohio and Indiana.

Newly elected New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat facing a $10 billion deficit, campaigned on pension reform. He made it clear that he wanted the unions to do their part, and during his budget address he declared his state to be "functionally bankrupt." Cuomo called on the state's public sector unions to make $450 million in concessions. He threatened, as a last resort, to lay off 9,800 state workers to get the savings needed.

Consider what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the "patron saint of labor," said in letter to the National Federation of Federal Employees in 1937:

"Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the government. All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations. ... The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for ... officials ... to bind the employer."

The rise of public sector unions is a fairly new phenomenon. In 1967, Gov. Jerry Brown allowed collective bargaining for California's government workers, and in the next couple of decades public sector unions grew tenfold.

Now governors, in the name of fiscal sanity, are demanding that the public sector unions do their part and make concessions.

The debate will continue, but I believe that the average family gets the joke. This is a fight between tax consumers and taxpayers over inordinately high pensions and health care for state employees whose retirement benefits, in most cases, far exceed those in the private sector.

It is a debate worth having and one that ultimately will help determine the economic viability of our country.

Marc Rotterman worked in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1984. He is a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation.

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