During the holiday break this winter, a woman in my neighbourhood was at the supermarket with her son when they ran into the son’s teacher. “See you Monday,” the mother said. The teacher gaily informed her she would not be back until mid-month, as she had planned a vacation in Central America. Teachers used to content themselves with the months off they enjoy in summers and at holidays, but they have got used to more. One can understand why American public employees ardently defend their unions, and the benefits they win. But one can also understand why, in a time of straitened budgets, union-negotiated contracts might be among the first places to make savings.
A fierce budget battle has been running for more than a week in Madison, Wisconsin. It goes far beyond salaries and benefits, to touch on the deeper question of whether collective bargaining has any place in government employment. Governor Scott Walker, a Republican elected last autumn with support from the Tea Party movement, believes it does not. His “budget repair” bill not only requires state employees to contribute to their pension and health plans. It would also end collective bargaining for benefits. Democratic senators, lacking the votes to defeat the bill, fled the state, denying the quorum necessary to bring it to a vote.
Mr Walker is not making a mountain out of a molehill. Wisconsin has a $137m budget gap to fill this year and a $3.6bn deficit over the next two. The big year-on-year leap reflects, in part, the expiration of federal stimulus spending, much of which was used to avoid laying off government workers. Citizens of other advanced countries sometimes make the mistake of assuming that the US has a skeletal bureaucracy. That is wrong. Once you include state, county and city employees, it is a formidable workforce and an expensive one. State employees account for up to $6,000bn in coming pension costs. Wisconsin’s difficulties are milder than those elsewhere, which means that similar clashes are arising in other states, especially where Republicans rule.