Did Wisconsin Senate Choose Nuclear Option in Collective-Bargaining Fight?

Article excerpt

Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate vote to strip key public- sector unions of collective bargaining rights, despite the fact that no Democrats were present. The vote is a bid to protect core budget cuts to public-employee benefits, Republicans say. But is that necessary?

The Wisconsin Senate on Wednesday took decisive and controversial action in its weeks-long battle with Democrats and the labor unions for which they have been fighting. In an 18-to-1 vote, Senate Republicans moved to strip many state workers of their collective- bargaining rights.

Senate Democrats had fled the state in mid-February to deny Republicans a quorum and prevent this vote. But Senate Republicans decided yesterday that they could detach the collective-bargaining provision from the broader "budget repair bill" and vote on it without a quorum. A quorum would have been needed on any bill that affects spending.

A Democratic member of the Assembly present in the Capitol, Rep. Peter Barca, said that the Republicans' procedural maneuvers violated Senate rules. The Assembly is expected to vote on the bill Thursday.

The Republican insistence on stripping collective bargaining from many key state unions has invoked the wrath of labor unions and their supporters nationwide - even President Obama. They call it a needless and politically motivated ploy to bust the power of public- sector employee unions.

According to Gov. Scott Walker (R), though, it is something else entirely. It is a foundation for the substance of his budget- cutting plans: containing labor costs including public-employee pensions and health-care expenses. Media reports suggest that unions have agreed to some concessions to help close the state's budget gap, but Governor Walker has insisted that collective bargaining could could easily undo those core reforms in years ahead.

Are pensions really budget busters?

Many economists say the needed fixes can be made without new constraints on collective bargaining. But other budget experts argue that union bargaining power is a central part of the problem - and Wisconsin isn't the only state where new constraints on bargaining are up for debate.

But beyond that, are the pension and health costs of union employees really a budget buster for states?

Yes and no. For the most part, states aren't facing an immediate fiscal crisis due to public-employee benefits - and Wisconsin certainly isn't. But states do face a rising tab, and many are far from on track to meet those promises.

As a result, the question of paring back compensation for union employees has come up in numerous other states from New Mexico to Ohio, and even in Wisconsin - one of the better-prepared states - the issue is a genuine one for statehouse debate.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, for one, said recently that states could be on the hook for as much as $3 trillion in unfunded pension commitments and $600 billion in retiree health benefits. …