A little more than a week ago, I asked the leaders of the three major public employee unions if they'd be willing to accept Gov. Scott Walker's proposed concessions on pensions and health care — seeing as how Walker didn't have the courtesy to ask them himself.

I got no response from two of the leaders, while the third said his union made it a rule not to bargain in public.

Setting aside the question of whether mobilizing tens of thousands of people to protest at the state Capitol is, in fact, a rather public bargaining chip, it now appears the unions are willing to horse trade in the open.

Late last week, after four days of increasingly large protests that gained national attention, unions announced they would accept paying half the cost of pensions and 12.6 percent of the cost of health insurance — as long as they were allowed to keep their collective bargaining rights.

It's a good deal. Public workers should be able to bargain collectively, and Walker would be wise to drop his attack on the practice and compromise.

Similarly, public sector unions would be wise to admit that the current dispute is mostly, if not entirely, about money.

Modern unions exist to protect workers' pay, benefits and working conditions — the last two of which are in some sense a consolation prize for accepting lower pay than their nonunionized private sector cohorts, union members say. Collective bargaining is a tool in service of this overriding goal. Which is fine, but it doesn't necessarily make it a moral imperative — or unions pure as the driven snow.

To wit, consider some of the state's unions' policy initiatives:

• A law signed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2009 that requires the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining in the public schools — a pretty clear attempt to generate good PR for unions while supplanting the independent pedagogical decisions of educators.

• The very recent and politically expedient decision by the state's largest teachers union to drop its longstanding opposition to a teacher evaluation process based on something more than just longevity and educational attainment.

• A 2009 law that makes it difficult for municipalities to save money by consolidating emergency services by setting a floor for how much must be spent on them.

As unionization in the private sector continues its long decline, it would do us all a lot of good for public sector unions to instead lend some of their money and expertise to private sector organizing. That tends to be a tough row to hoe, according to Paul Secunda, a Marquette University law professor who studies labor law.

There is nothing to stop them from doing this, Secunda said, but "they have other things to do with that money."

Which seems like part of the problem.

Redirecting at least some of that money, however, just might pay off for public workers in the future in the form of an electorate less disposed to electing a governor who wants to kill collective bargaining.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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