In a syndicated column (February 25), Linda Chavez gave good reasons why Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and Chris Christie in New Jersey are all justified in their battles against public sector unions. Chavez mentions lavish pension plans, paid for largely or almost entirely from state funds, and the unfairness of making all public employees, even against their will, pay union dues deducted from their salaries. Chavez also notes that Democratic president FDR was dead set against public service unions and recognized such organizations were not the same as blue-collar ones. Public sector unions live off tax money directly, and they pour billions of dollars (mostly out of compulsory union dues) into electing and controlling their own bosses.

Chavez might have mentioned some other facts. Federal employees do not have collective bargaining rights for negotiating their salaries and pensions. If President Obama is outraged that Governor Walker in Wisconsin is denying certain collective bargaining powers to some public sector unions, why doesn’t he apply his union-friendly solution at the federal level? That is the level at which Obama exercises authority, not as a Democratic cheerleader in Wisconsin. Moreover, twenty-four states in the US do not have collective bargaining for public sector employees. The situation in Wisconsin, New York, California, Connecticut and New Jersey does not prevail everywhere, and particularly not in state that are not being rocked by the present fiscal crisis.

Finally, the reforms in financing pensions which have come from the outspoken governors are merely band-aid operations. They would do little to bring down debt levels, unless taxes are substantially raised and lots of public employees are let go. Illinois, where the public sector and its clients reign supreme, may end up in the short run doing as well as neighboring Wisconsin. It can do that by raising taxes. The problem is the state will also unfortunately be driving away business, a trend that is already devouring Illinois’s economy.

The one point Chavez gets wrong is that she imagines the new boldness being shown by some governors has to do with the GOP being “back in power in the states.”  Presumably if this had happened sooner, the war would have begun even earlier. But this is far from the case. Looking at the current Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett in office, I am not witnessing a reenactment of the gubernatorial career of Corbett’s close friend and fellow-Republican Tom Ridge.

Unlike the man he advised, Corbett is not running the state as a socially liberal economic moderate. He has positioned himself well to the right of Ridge, and nowhere so clearly as in his willingness to confront the public sector and to take on such liberal programs as publicly financed abortions. Corbett is not bringing back Republican leadership as it existed under Ridge. Nor has the governor of New Jersey remained the me-too Republican he was when he ran for office.

Something has lit a fire under Republican governors, and I would suggest there are two factors at work. First, the Tea Party activists took control in many states before and during the last election; and this group may have created a momentum for budget-cutting and talking back to the public sector that was not there before. Through most of my life, it is the Democrats who have forced big changes, by generally moving the country toward the left.

What the GOP did in office was to manage the change while making noise about “family values.” In the academic world, I have noticed the similar behavior. Almost all the energy in universities has been on the left, while the Republicans I’ve encountered there have usually avoided controversy. Suddenly at the state level, it’s Republican governors who are grabbing headlines by going on the warpath. I suspect their Tea party constituents may have something to do with this belligerence

Second, Republicans may be learning from experience that they can’t win votes by being nice to those who are out to defeat them. In last fall’s election campaign, public sector unions forked out hundreds of millions of dollars to Democratic candidates. In California the unions spent more than either national party to get their candidates elected. And they were overwhelmingly successful in New York, California, Delaware, Connecticut and other states in which the state governments awarded them compulsory dues- and collective bargaining privileges.

In Pennsylvania these union conglomerates almost succeeded in defeating Toomey in the US senatorial race. Just before the election, his opponent Joe Sestak came from behind to almost overtaking the frontrunner. Public sector unions made this possible by giving many millions of dollars to Sestak’s campaign. According to The Hill (October 10, 2010), the Service Employees International Union stuck two million dollars into Sestak’s campaign chest in October. The GOP owes public sector unions nothing. And by no means should Republican governors feel obligated to collect compulsory dues for them.