It’s been 10 years since Wisconsin passed Bill 10, which limited the rights of public service unions to demand collective bargaining, and Wisconsin is still reaping the benefits: better academic performance, more freedom for teachers, less ability. unions to influence policy and cost savings for school districts – to name a few.
However, the left is still working to say the opposite, so two frequent myths deserve to be dispelled. The passage of Bill 10 and the “Right to Work” legislation – which gave Wisconsin employees the same freedom to choose whether or not to be unionized as that enjoyed by 26 other states – did not increase income inequality or hurt education in Wisconsin. In fact, almost the opposite is true.
Let us first examine income inequality by examining a common measure of the gap between the rich and the poor – the Gini coefficient. It attempts to represent, with a single number, the difference between the poorest and the richest individuals in a particular area. State level Gini coefficient data collected by a state economics professor Sam Houston shows that Wisconsin has not changed much in terms of income inequality before or after Act 10. Indeed, the state has remained more equal than average the United States. In other words, the claim that union reforms have increased inequalities is patently absurd based on the data.
Contrary to popular understanding, Bill 10 did not restrict the rights of unions to defend their members. This, however, restricted their ability to insist on collective bargaining – a system in which the government is forced to bargain with its employees. While this may seem trivial, in practice it allows unions to influence government decision-making in ways that citizens with competing interests – for example, taxpayers – cannot. Within the framework of collective bargaining, civil servants’ unions exercise inordinate power over public decision-making. For example, as parents across the country became more interested in opening schools following the growing consensus that it was safe to do so, teachers’ unions fought to prevent it. Research of our organization and others found that COVID-19 played little role in decisions to reopen schools – what mattered was whether there was a strong union in the area.
While COVID-19 has undoubtedly hurt education, Act 10 has not. Specifically, Act 10 is not the reason why a decreasing number of people are becoming teachers, which is one of the arguments of the left regarding Act 10 which harms education. The shortage of teachers is a national problem, covering states across the political spectrum. According to data from the Ministry of Education compiled by the Center for American Progress, almost all states have experienced significant declines in the number of students enrolled in teacher preparation programs. States like Illinois and New York, where few union reforms are possible, have seen larger declines than Wisconsin.
Act 10, in many ways, benefited education. Based on research we conducted at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the law allowed significant flexibility in the employment process for teachers. Now, effective educators can be rewarded with merit pay, while those who don’t do the job can more easily be fired. Perhaps in a related manner, the implementation of Law 10 turned out to be associated with improving math skills. It all came with few changes student-teacher ratios and a decline in the average experience levels of teachers under one year. In addition, as the MacIver Institute here in Wisconsin noted, Bill 10 has resulted in savings in school district budgets, over time, approaching $ 14 billion.
Wisconsin will continue to thrive on Bill 10 and the Right to Work – and other states with similar laws will too. In fact, over the past decade to at least four states have adopted laws on the right to work. Other states, like Iowa, adopted similar trade union reforms in the public sector. In this way, Bill 10 did not hurt education or increase income inequality, but it did have a lasting impact by helping to empower workers to make their own choices across the country.
Rick Esenberg is President and Will Flanders is Research Director at Wisconsin Institute for Law and Freedoms.