I must admit, I had a sick feeling in my stomach when the Republican governors of Wisconsin and Ohio first began pushing this winter to gut collective bargaining rights for government employees. It was clearly an effort to bust public employee unions, a pillar of Democratic electoral strength. One doesn’t have to be a political partisan (which I am) or an unadulterated fan of unions (which I’m not) to be appalled. Still, from the GOP’s standpoint, it looked like a politically savvy move, the kind Karl Rove used to call a “game changer.” Looming budget deficits and growing pension costs presented a policy excuse to do the deed. Large Republican legislative majorities provided the votes needed to win. And it seemed that the governors would be able to appeal to the resentment of voters who no longer enjoy the kind of job security and generous retirement benefits that their tax dollars make possible for government workers.

Yet in retrospect, passing those bills doesn’t look so smart. In fact, it could turn out to be a political catastrophe for the GOP. It has already energized the progressive base and the labor movement in ways not seen in years—witness the weeks of protest in Madison. It has sparked efforts to recall GOP state legislators in Wisconsin and to get a referendum overturning the new law on the Ohio ballot. And it has proven surprisingly unpopular with the public. Most polls show voters siding with the unions over the governors by substantial margins. And it’s not just union members who disapprove. A survey by Public Policy Polling found that 54 percent of nonunion households in Ohio support collective bargaining for government employees, as do 62 percent of political independents, the group that will likely decide the 2012 election in that bellwether state. The head of the Fraternal Order of Police is now hinting that his politically potent union, which endorsed Republican candidates in the last three presidential contests, will switch allegiances in 2012.

If Republicans knew what was good for them, they’d back off their attacks on unions and hope the anger blows over by 2012. Instead, they seem to be doubling down. Legislation to limit collective bargaining by public employees has now spread to nearly half the states, according to the Los Angeles Times. And as the primary season heats up, GOP presidential candidates will be under pressure to publicly side with the union busters—a stance that Barack Obama and other Democrats will surely remind voters of in the general election.

In addition to helping Republicans hang themselves, though, the progressive camp should take advantage of the unexpected pro-union mood of the country with a little Rovian game changing of its own. First, organized labor should make common cause with some economic players
it usually ignores: entrepreneurs. As Barry Lynn argues in this issue (“The Real Enemy of Unions“), private sector unions and small businesses are both being squeezed by the increasing consolidation of American industry. Both could benefit economically and politically by fighting together for tougher antitrust enforcement.

Second, to clinch the argument over public-sector unions, Democrats need to admit the obvious, that the government pension crisis is real—California, for instance, is now spending more on public workers’ pensions than on higher education. And they need to come up with better solutions than the Republicans are offering. As Sylvester Schieber and Phillip Longman point out (“The Fallacy of Union Busting“), unions aren’t really the problem: states that ban public-sector collective bargaining offer pensions as lavish as the ones that allow it. Rather, the problem is that politicians, regardless of party, can use pensions to hide future costs from the voters. They can increase future benefits to please employees, or underfund pension programs and use the money for, say, tax cuts, without those costs showing up on this year’s budget.

The way to fix this flaw is to let the public in on the decision. When a city or state wants to float bonds for a building project, it first has to place the bond measure on the ballot—an effective check on excessive borrowing. Schieber and Longman suggest that the same be done with pensions. Let unions and politicians negotiate, but if the resulting contract expands benefits, it must be approved by voters.

Organized labor’s first instinct will be to balk at this suggestion, because it will almost certainly limit future pension increases. But they should resist that temptation. The voters are showing that they honor the rights of unions. Unions would do well to return the favor.

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.