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Gov. Scott Walker could win in Wisconsin by compromising

Thursday, February 24, 2011; 8:05 PM

HAVING SEEN close to home the influence that public-sector unions can have on politics and budgets, we understand where Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is coming from.

In Montgomery County, for example, the Republican Party is a negligible force. Democratic primaries often are the only game that matters, but turnout is so low that well-organized unions can be the decisive force. Politicians who recognize this have been generous with county employees - particularly with pension benefits and other bills that won't come due until future politicians are in office.

The effect, which you can see repeated in counties, cities and states from California to New York, can be unhealthy. Employee expenses crowd out everything else, including services for the poor. And it's not just a question of money; teachers unions have been able to put rules in place that protect mediocre teaching at the expense of children's learning. There's a reason that, when union rights were first legislated during the New Deal, public-sector workers weren't included. They began to win collective-bargaining rights - as opposed to civil service protection, which isn't the same thing - only in the 1960s.

But that's only part of the story. Automatic dues checkoff isn't a God-given right, but workers do have a fundamental right to associate and act meaningfully in their own collective interest. When they win compensation generous enough to attract and retain talent in government jobs, that serves the public interest, too. Nor are the collective bargaining rights that Mr. Walker wants to do away with the only culprit in today's fiscal crises. States that have never allowed such rights, such as Virginia, have underfunded pensions, too. Ultimately, it's up to politicians to stand up for the right balance, and it's up to voters to turn out leaders who won't.

That's how Mr. Walker got where he is, after all. And there's no question that Republicans in Wisconsin, having won the governorship and both chambers of the legislature, have the right to do what they're doing. Unions, which usually campaign for the Democratic Party, can't be surprised when Republicans look unkindly on them.

But having the power to do something doesn't make it the wise choice. There's no shortage in America today of go-for-the-throat, take-no-prisoners politics. What's more often missing is an effort to bring everyone to the table and to recognize some legitimacy in opposing points of view.

Having won concessions from the union on budgetary matters, Mr. Walker would serve his state better by looking for common ground. He would be showing respect to thousands of public employees who work hard for modest salaries. He would make himself more statesmanlike, and he might set an example that would be useful for national politicians as well as those playing on a state level.

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