Wisconsin Labor Battle Pivotal for Unions, Workers

San Francisco Chronicle, February 27, 2011

By Harley Shaiken

In the freezing cold of a Wisconsin winter, the future of the labor movement and the middle class could well be at stake.

Facing a chilling $3.6 billion state budget deficit over the next two fiscal years, newly elected Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has demanded steep concessions from state workers and the elimination of collective bargaining as we know it.

Wisconsin unions accepted the proposed concessions to their health care and pension benefits - painful to be sure - but Walker has rejected a compromise. He is hanging tough on jettisoning collective bargaining and insisting on weakening - if not gutting - unions in other ways as well. In effect, he has moved from a position of "shared sacrifice" to the unions being "the sacrifice."

If unions lose in Wisconsin, other states are poised to jump on the bandwagon from Ohio to New Jersey. Public workers are now the demographic heart of the labor movement. Unions represent 7.6 million workers at all levels of government, 52 percent of the total organized workers in the country. A defeat in Wisconsin would lead to a much larger implosion.

Well, what about those alarming deficits? They are clearly real but need to be put in context. The collapse of the financial markets and slide of the entire economy got us into this fix, not the bloated compensation of public workers. In other words, plunging revenues not soaring salaries were the problem.

Despite the stereotypes, government employees are hardly living high-on-the-hog. In Wisconsin, wages and benefits for public workers lag behind their counterparts in the private sector by nearly 5 percent when factors such as education and experience are taken into account. A high school teacher averages $49,000 a year, while a firefighter in the state earns about $33,000 annually.

And, that vaunted job security? As many as 400,000 public workers have lost their jobs nationally since the Great Recession began, and many more are fearful about their future.

Ironically, Gov. Gaylord Nelson, best known for Earth Day, pioneered collective bargaining for state workers over five decades ago in Wisconsin. Governors today, such as Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York, are making very tough fiscal choices but have indicated that collective bargaining is part of the solution not the problem. Even Rick Snyder, a conservative Michigan Republican, has indicated he plans to "negotiate with our unions in a collective-bargaining fashion to achieve goals."

If public workers see their bargaining rights incinerated, the result would be devastating in and of itself, but other workers won't be far behind. In fact, legislators in Michigan and Indiana are already talking about measures that would undermine unions in the private sector as well. There are those who feel an injury to one ought to be an injury to all.

Many economists agree that organized labor fueled the expansion of the middle class after World War II. Unions forged a link between soaring productivity and rising paychecks. The result was that median family income, adjusted for inflation, doubled by the mid-1970s. During this period, unions represented 1 of every 3 people in the workforce, a peak reached in the late 1950s. Today, that number is 1 in 8.

Some workers may believe that if public unions are hobbled, their own wages and benefits will stay the same and their taxes might even decline. Not likely in either case. If unions have linked rising productivity and wages in the past, breaking unions today decouples that link tomorrow. Many employers will take their cue from the public sector and slice private-sector wages and benefits accordingly. Even those workers who currently have little could wind up with a lot less. Moreover, lower wages translate into reduced purchasing power, slowing the recovery and reducing revenue for the state.

Are we to assume that if unions are weakened that the wages of non-union workers will rise or that inequality will decline? Not likely in either case. In fact, purchasing power itself risks being throttled if we try to climb out of the state fiscal crisis on the backs of those who can least afford it.

We tend to forget that old bumper sticker portraying unions as "the folks who brought you the weekend." Union-led gains after World War II didn't come at the expense of other workers; they paved the way for pensions, health care, and rising wages for workers - union and non-union alike - throughout the economy.

Unions, like them or not, have represented far more than their members. They have been the political voice for the middle class and the least-advantaged Americans on issues from the minimum wage to Medicare.

At the end of the day, Gov. Walker wants to seize the moment to make a raw power grab. He doesn't want to negotiate with his opponents, he plans to knock them out of the ring. The result could be a profound shift in the political landscape. This corporate tilt is compounded by measures such as the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that allows companies to contribute unlimited amounts to politicians and causes they favor.

As other states follow Wisconsin's lead, the collateral damage will be to democracy itself. Former Republican Secretary of State and Labor George Shultz has said "free societies and free unions go together." You can't have effective free unions with the onerous new terms that Gov. Walker wants to impose.

If the military government in Cairo banned collective bargaining today, our State Department would likely, and appropriately, condemn the decision. What undermines democracy in Cairo is as damaging in Madison.

Harley Shaiken is a professor at UC Berkeley specializing on labor issues.

 

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