Wisconsin highlights union fight

Good overview of the battle. I side, most definitely, with Walker.

Ostensibly a battle over public finances, the ongoing struggle in the heart of the industrial midlands over public sector unions has escalated into a moment of truth for the existence of the labor movement.

The face-off between Republican governors and the public employee union rank and file appears to defy the normal split-the-difference compromise precisely because the GOP attack is calling into question the very legitimacy of their unions.

Given the relative importance of public sector unions within organized labor, a successful effort to cripple their collective bargaining rights could be a Waterloo for unions in general — 76 years after the federal Wagner Act gave them legal status.

The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has thrown his organization’s considerable weight behind the Republican governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and several other states in their explosive campaigns to curb the power of public sector unions.

Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber’s combative president, laid bare a long-festering complaint that helps explain the intensity of the high-stakes battles.

“Unionized government workers have tremendous leverage to negotiate their own wages and benefits,” Donohue wrote in one of his weekly columns this month. “They funnel tens of millions of dollars to elect candidates who will sit across from them at the negotiating table. This self-dealing has resulted in ever-increasing wage and benefit packages for unionized government workers that often far outstrip those for comparable private sector workers.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his like-minded colleagues say budget shortfalls and future pension obligations require tough, immediate cuts in public spending. But, as Donohue’s column shows, the Republican Party’s longstanding antipathy to unions is resurfacing in a more fundamental context, trying to undermine the legal and political foundations of unions.

The leaders of public sector unions and their supporters are fighting back by identifying the labor movement with the economic and social interests of the middle class and by linking their cause to the most politically appealing elements of their movement.

Suggesting that the GOP attacks amount to “scapegoating,” Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, says, “Let’s not forget who we are really talking about. We are talking about police officers that put their lives on the line to make our families safe and elementary school teachers who make sure our kids know their ABCs.”

Chuck Loveless, legislative director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, says, “I would just say that the same politicians and interest groups who are saying there is a fundamental difference between bargaining in the public and private sectors are the very ones who have done everything they can to eviscerate the rights of private sector workers.”

Moreover, union backers suggest that Donohue’s concerns are misplaced — that corporations with their vast resources can mount lobbying and political action campaigns that far outstrip labor’s ability to influence government decision-making.

Despite Walker’s success last week in pushing his bill into law, recent polling suggests that labor’s counteroffensive has been effective. A survey by the Wisconsin Public Research Institute found that 45 percent of Wisconsin residents strongly disapprove of Walker’s job performance, an unusually high number for a freshman governor presumably still in the honeymoon phase of his term.

Of perhaps greater political significance, the institute found that 68 percent of independents — a key voting bloc in almost every election — want him to compromise, something he has resisted.

National polling has uncovered similar trends. A Bloomberg News poll last week found 63 percent of respondents saying that governments should not be allowed to break promises to retirees.

The partisan polarization over Walker’s program deepened last week when top Republican lawmakers executed a surprise parliamentary maneuver that neutralized Democrats and sent the bill to his desk for signing, which he did March 11. The episode seems likely to inflame emotions even more, in Wisconsin and across the country.

Donohue’s concerns echo an old position, one that once held sway even with Democrats.

Labor icons such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Meany, the architect and first president of the AFL-CIO, expressed strong misgivings about the appropriateness of permitting public employees to bargain collectively. But powerful forces, including the civil rights movement and dramatic growth in the sheer size of government at all levels, swept aside those doubts.

In 1958, New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr., a Democrat, bolstered his re-election campaign by giving city employees the right to collective bargaining. The biggest breakthrough, however, occurred four years later, when President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order giving most federal employees collective bargaining and unionization rights.

Kennedy’s action gave impetus to a push by civil rights leaders to dramatize the need to improve wages and working conditions for city sanitation workers and others in menial government positions. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis during a strike by sanitation workers. Several months later, California’s Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan — without any apparent misgivings — signed a bill that opened the door in his state to unionizing local employees.

That consensus is now under assault. Encouraged by last November’s elections, which brought Republicans to power in several states previously controlled by the Democratic Party, critics of public sector unions are moving aggressively to seize the initiative.

“I think it is ultimately an ideological and political fight,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s over the legitimacy of unionism — period.”

Writing in National Affairs, Daniel DiSalvo, a political scientist at City College of New York, lays out the case against public sector unionism, arguing that elected officials “partially cede control of public agencies to unelected labor leaders” in negotiations with public sector unions. The result, DiSalvo adds, is to “distort the labor market, weaken public finances and diminish the responsiveness of government and the quality of public services.”

Walker denies he is out to cripple public sector unions, saying, “It’s not about the unions. It’s about balancing the budget.” But in a television interview shortly after his election, he told Fox News, “I say we can’t have a society where the taxpayers are have-nots and the public employees are the haves. They can’t be untouchables anymore. We’ve got to get that under control.”

Walker’s proposal for doing so triggered weeks of massive protests in the state Capitol and on its grounds, and it sent Democrats in the state Senate fleeing to nearby Illinois to block legislative action by making it impossible to assemble a quorum.

Among other things, his program will confine Wisconsin’s public employee unions to basic wage negotiations — placing health care, work schedules and vacations off-limits for collective bargaining. While Wisconsin law already prohibited strikes by public employees, Walker’s measure strengthened it by threatening dismissals of public employees who take part in sick-outs, sit-downs, slowdowns or other job actions short of walkouts. Another provision mandates annual elections by union members on whether to remain unionized.

Walker also moved to prohibit the practices of deducting union dues from public employees’ paychecks, an idea that has also surfaced in a proposed bill in the U.S. House that would affect unionized federal workers. Attempting to build support among public workers for his overall plan to shrink the powers of their unions, the governor contends that they would reap an increase of $500 to $1,000 a year in take-home pay.

Forcing union members to pay dues from their own pockets has long been a staple of management and GOP objectives because of the assumption that it would weaken workers’ attachments to their locals.

Ohio’s Republican Gov. John R. Kasich originally proposed a ban on collective bargaining by public employees but softened his legislation to allow negotiations for wages, hours and working conditions for 360,000 firefighters, police officers, teachers, prison guards and other government workers.

However, the bill would ban collective bargaining on benefits and public employee strikes, and it would eliminate binding arbitration.

In Congress, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., an outspoken critic of public sector unions, has introduced legislation designed to make state and local pensions more transparent, a response to a shortfall in what states and localities have set aside to pay for future employee retirement benefits and the actual price tag of those obligations.

A year-old study by the Pew Center on the States says a conservative estimate of that gap is about $1 trillion.

The Nunes bill would also ban federal bailouts of troubled state and local governments unable to make ends meet.

But otherwise, federal lawmakers have largely been content to allow the battle to play itself out at the state level — although House Republicans are considering proposals targeting what their sponsors consider to be inappropriate, costly or even abusive labor practices by unions representing federal workers.

In general, however, those unions operate under a more stringent set of rules than their non-federal counterparts.

Much of the debate about the status of state and local public unions centers on whether the government workers they represent are overpaid at their skill levels compared to privately employed counterparts and whether their fringe benefits, particularly pensions, are adequately funded.

In a research paper six years ago, Henry S. Farber, a labor economist at Princeton University, noted, “Private sector employers generally face stiff market discipline.” As a consequence, union officials risk their own livelihoods, and those of their members, if they make excessive demands that could result in the employer moving operations offshore or surrendering market share to a competitor.

“Public sector employers are not in this situation,” Farber wrote. “Their products are not sold in a market, so there is no standard market discipline. What discipline there is comes from the political process.”

The question is whether that is an adequate constraint on excessive demands by state and local public employees (who at the federal level are legally barred from negotiating over economic issues such as wages and benefits).

Julius G. Getman, a law professor at the University of Texas who follows labor relations, recalls his days negotiating for the Connecticut police union and later heading the American Association of University Professors. “There are in fact countervailing pressures,” Getman says. “It’s not as if there is an open checkbook because public officials have limited budgets, and they are always under pressure from the other side to resist.”

Farber, in an interview, acknowledges that “the political process is quite effective at disciplining leaders for things that hit the pocketbook of the taxpayers themselves.” But, he adds, union negotiators have successfully focused on fringe benefits — particularly pensions and health care coverage — that entail future obligations from the taxpayers.

“The political system is not very good at disciplining current leaders for making those kinds of long-range obligations,” he says.

However, the nuances of this argument often seem obscured by angry rhetoric on both sides. There is a reason for this. In 2009, public sector union membership for the first time accounted for more than half of the nation’s union members. It has not been lost on partisans on both sides that a successful effort to weaken a robust public employee union movement would deal a damaging blow to the Democratic Party, which benefits from its overwhelming support.

Thus Nunes, in a recent interview, compares backers of public employee unions to “Socialist utopians [who] are always looking for that last exit to utopia,” and declares that the ability of public sector union negotiators to leverage political clout into tangible contract benefits for their members amounts to a “death spiral.”

Gerald E. Connolly, a House Democrat whose Northern Virginia district represents the country’s third-largest contingent of public employees, counters that governors such as Walker and Kasich, with the tacit support of GOP allies in Congress, are involved “in nothing but a raw power grab aimed at trying to defenestrate the political opposition.”

That kind of language, suggests Jane Elmes-Crahall, an expert on political rhetoric at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., “is designed to say, you are either with me or against me. I’m not going to be in the middle looking for a compromise.”

Finlay Lewis writes for CQ.

Original here.



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