Why Wisconsin?

Given that the cuts Governor Walker is requesting are so small—as this cartoon nicely illustrates—and leave Wisconsin public employees still very well off compared to their peers in other states, what is the fight in Wisconsin really all about? Others have identified large themes one can see in this conflict: whether we will choose to embrace decline or fight it (Victor Davis Hanson); a “battle for the soul of America” (Roger Kimball). I think they’re right. But I see a context that others seem not to be noticing. The unions and the Democratic Party, for many years, have managed to inflate their political strength artificially. The Wisconsin reforms threaten their ability to do that.
Politico finds the key element in the struggle:

Yet another element of the legislation could have even greater political consequences. The Republican [bill] would end the automatic deduction from their workers paychecks and make the unions collect the dues themselves, a move that would almost surely result in less cash flowing into labor coffers. It would block unions from collecting money from consenting wokers’ paychecks for political operations, and it would force annual elections on whether state workers even want a union, a lethal threat to public-sector labor.

Throughout the 1980s, the Democrats controlled the House despite attracting fewer votes in House races, collectively, than the Republicans. How did they do it? Redistricting. They gerrymandered aggressively to maximize their electoral advantage. Eventually, the Democrats lost their ability to do that by losing enough at the state level. But they retained a large advantage. Unions, and increasingly public sector unions, which were legalized in most states in the 1960s, collected vast sums in dues from their members. Much of that money ended up in the coffers of the Democratic Party. The Supreme Court ruled in Communications Workers v. Beck (1988) that requiring workers to contribute to a political cause or party in this way violated their constitutional rights. The Court insisted that workers be required to take action to authorize political contributions. One of Bill Clinton’s first acts as President was to issue an executive order refusing to implement the Beck decision, which has consequently had little impact. (George W. Bush didn’t order implementation of Beck, thinking that he could work with Democrats in Washington as he had in Austin. That was a serious mistake.)
Obama, of course, has no interest in implementing Beck. The unconstitutional flow of cash into Democratic accounts thus continues. The Wisconsin bill, however, challenges that bit of graft by ending automatic deductions and forcing annual elections. Employees now have to go through a difficult process to reclaim the (large) portion of their dues that goes to political action, and they risk their jobs to do so. Under the Wisconsin reforms, it would be much easier for employees to opt out of the political portion of their dues. Strong arm tactics used against them to compel such contributions could easily provoke rejection at the next annual election. So, the power of the unions to compel their members to contribute to the Democrats would be limited.
The Democrats are drawing the battle line in Wisconsin, in short, because their strategy requires them, unconstitutionally, to compel contributions from union members who would never do so in the absence of compulsion. Freedom, justice, and the Constitution all line up on Governor Walker’s side. On the side? Well, some key ones are at an undisclosed location in northern Illinois. Another is in the White House.

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