Image: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pauses for a moment in the governor conference room at the State Capital in Madison
Pool  /  Reuters
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pauses for a moment in the governor conference room at the State Capital to give a fireside chat in Madison on Tuesday.
updated 2/24/2011 5:30:27 PM ET 2011-02-24T22:30:27

It has turned into open season on unionized public employees.

A weak economy, stagnant job market and busted state budgets have placed public sector employees in the crosshairs of legislators and taxpayers across the nation, who are targeting the fair wages, good benefits and rights teachers, firefighters, police and others have fought to gain over decades.

At the center of the debate is Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker claims the only way to help the state’s ailing budget is to get concessions from certain public employees and essentially gut the unions that represent them. His radical approach, which has sparked mass protests, is not restricted to “The Cheese State” and has already begun to spill over into a host of other states, including Indiana, Tennessee, and Ohio.

Unions aren't that popular, but neither are businesses

The move by Wisconsin’s governor to take away collective bargain rights from some of its state workers would mark one of the most sweeping reductions in unionized government workers rights to date, experts say.

“Up until now the big arc has been to expand labor law and collective bargaining rights for public employees, and the majority of states now give collective bargaining rights to state workers,” said Joseph Slater, the Eugene N. Balk Professor of Law and Values at the University of Toledo College of Law, and author of “Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law and the State.”

Unfortunately, public sector workers “stand out, giving politicians the pretence they need to do something dramatic,” added Thomas Kochan, professor of management at MIT's Sloan School of Management and co-director of the MIT Workplace Center and the Institute for Work and Employment Research.

In 2009, public employees made up the biggest chunk of unionized workers in the United States for the first time ever.

While private sector unions, including those mainly in manufacturing, have seen their ranks dwindle for decades, public sector unions have been holding their own, hitting 7.6 million members last year, compared to 7.1 million union workers in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And percentage-wise, union membership among public employees is more ubiquitous, at 36.2 percent, compared to 6.9 percent in private sector industries.

“This attack on public sector collective bargaining rights is better understood as a partisan attack on unions in a sector that unions still have some strength than it has to do with public sector budgets,” said Slater.

What Gov. Walker wants to do is curtail those rights in a state that in 1959 was one of the first in the country to grant workers collective bargaining privileges. He made no secret of his intentions when he was governor-elect late last year. “Public employee unions are a creature of state law and there might be consideration of changing that state law to empower the taxpayers of the Wisconsin,” he said in a speech to the Milwaukee Press Club.

Walker has proposed making changes to the collective bargaining rights of all state workers except law enforcement and firefighters. He would leave some bargaining on base wages, but would cap any increases, and would allow no bargaining on working conditions, vacations or benefits. The plan would also force unions into a perpetual state of organizing by having elections to certify the union held yearly.

“This budget repair bill will meet the immediate needs of our state and give government the tools to deal with this and future budget crises,” according to a statement by Walker, who has also called for state government employees to pay more towards their pensions and health insurance benefits.

Some of the state’s biggest government unions, the Wisconsin State Employees Union and the Wisconsin Education Association Council, have said they are willing to give in to the governor’s demands when it comes to paying in more, but they don’t want the state to eviscerate their right to negotiate at the bargaining table. "Public employees have agreed to Governor Walker’s pension and health care concessions, which he says will solve the budget challenge. But Governor Walker’s bill goes too far and he has chosen polarizing rhetoric," said Mary Bell, president of the council, in a statement.

Some conservative groups say the move to diminish the power of unions in the public sector isn’t about taking the voice away from employees. Instead, it's about leveling the playing field for all workers and helping taxpayers.

Public sector unions have massive leverage, said John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan research organization dedicated to supporting free market principles and liberty-based public policy initiatives."

And “that’s why they extract all these growing benefits and wages, and why collective bargaining is detrimental to society as a whole,” said Tillman. Private sector workers, he added, have seen their wages cut during tough economic times but public service workers haven’t suffered as much.

“I’m not surprised that people are desperate and looking for answers,” said Ellen Danin, a law professor at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law

Indeed, the growth of unions has helped boost the pay of public employees, particularly less skilled jobs such as custodial workers, who have better overall compensation than their counterparts in the private sector. Government workers with college degrees are typically paid less than workers with equivalent degrees at companies, said Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at Cornell University’s ILR School.

But the public's ire may be misdirected, said Kochan, because government workers don’t have the bloated paychecks many think they do. “Yes, pensions and benefits are higher, but wages are lower” for many government employees, he noted, especially those with college degrees.

“This really isn’t about shared sacrifice; it's basically an assault on workers rights,” maintained Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of American Rights at Work. “We need to remind people that an attack on unions is an attack on all workers. Unions are worker-led institutions where people come together to bargain for fair wages and benefits and good working conditions.”

It’s no coincidence, she added, that the decline in union density mirrors the rise in low-paying jobs with very little security and benefits.

If Walker and other governors succeed in taking a way collective bargaining rights, the short-term affect will be to cripple public sector unions, said MIT’s Kochan. “In the long term it will kill any effort for education reform because you’ll have unions that are even more militant and feeling backed into a corner.”

It will also create civil unrest, he continued, as it already has on the streets of Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Indiana and Ohio.

Public unions and legislators eventually will sit down and work it out, Kochan asserts. The collective bargaining laws in states today were in many ways a product of the turbulent 1960s when cities were on fire and the civil rights movements reached an apex. At that time, he noted, “a sensible leadership in Wisconsin said ‘let's put together a collective bargaining process.'”

Indeed, one of the first things former governor of Missouri Bob Holden did when he got into office in 2001 during a tough economic time was to sign an executive order allowing broad collective-bargaining rights to state workers.

“I understand the difficult financial situation he’s in,” Holden said about Walker, and other governors today, “but I think it’s very important for all parties to feel like they’re able to sit at the same table and discuss the issues in good faith. You need balance in any society.”


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