Did Wisconsin Republicans Need to Attack Collective Bargaining?

Article excerpt

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he needed to rein in collective bargaining in order to secure key long-term budget savings. Is he right? Here are the arguments pro and con.

Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican allies in Wisconsin have made it clear this week: They insist on a major rollback of union collective bargaining power, not just on some budget concessions from public employee unions.

Partisan conflict on the issue has only escalated this week. Republicans in the state Senate on Wednesday used a procedural gambit to pass a measure to strip key bargaining powers from state workers, without a quorum. The state's House approved the measure Thursday afternoon, as protesters thronged the Capitol and union members weighed the option of a general strike.

So, what is this debate over collective bargaining all about?

Beneath the ruckus is an issue that goes to the core of labor union power in today's America. To backers of organized labor, it's about defending cherished means of advocating on behalf of workers, at a time when a majority of unionized workers are in the public sector. To union critics, it's about rolling back powers they say are inappropriate in the government sector and harm state economies.

Governor Walker framed it this way in a statement after the Senate vote: "I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government. The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs."

Mark Miller, the state Senate's Democratic leader, has taken an opposite view: "Public workers have stepped up and agreed to ... increased contributions for health care and pensions," he said in a recent statement. "All they have asked for in return is to maintain the rights they have had for over 50 years."

Walker wants both the concessions on benefits and a shift in that 50-year tradition. The bill passed this week focused just on bargaining rights. By keeping direct budgetary issues out of the bill, the Senate was able to pass it without a quorum, although some argue the maneuver was illegal.

It's easy to see the drama through the lens of political self- interest. Public-sector labor unions are a vital source of campaign funding for Democrats, while some of the biggest donors to Republicans are business people who would like union clout to be pared.

Both sides say they're fighting for important principles that will make their state a better place to live - and they both make substantive points to back up their views. Here's a look at the arguments on both sides - and some of the evidence that might support or counter those claims.

The case for Walker's bill

Stripping away union bargaining power on compensation doesn't make Wisconsin unique. States have a patchwork of policies: Some require collective bargaining for many workers, others permit it, and a few largely prohibit the practice. …