Republican Governor [of Wisconsin] Scott Walker . . . is pushing a proposal that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers and make them pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage. The changes amount to about a seven percent salary cut.
The budget shortfall that is being used to justify the step cuts to state employee pay and denying unions their collective bargaining rights, of course, is a crisis of Governor Walker's own making created by tax cuts that he backed. Unions are willing to discuss compensation custs, but not the loss of their collective bargaining rights.
A core principle of American political conservatives is that unions are bad and should be busted at every available opportunity. As I've noted before at this blog, one of the key points in the Republican playbook at the moment is that public employees, particularly unionized ones, are overpaid relative to private sector workers (despite evidence to the contrary) and that they employees should bear a large share of the public spending cuts that Republicans campaigned on in the 2012 election.
In Wisconsin, where the 2012 election left Republicans in charge of both houses of the state legislature and the Governor's office, they have the votes to put that ideology into action. While private sector union-management relations are governed by the federal government's National Labor Relations Board, states have considerable freedom to adopt laws concerning the rights of their public sector unions.
Since they don't have the votes to win this battle in the legislative process, Wisconsin union members have marched in force (25,000 strong) on the state capital as the legislature considers the bill and state senate Democrats have removed themselves to an undisclosed location to deny Republicans in the state senate the quorum they need to pass the bill, echoing a similar tactic used in Texas redistricting battles within the last few years. Wisconsin also lacks the citizen's initiative process present in states like California and Colorado, that might have given public sector union members in Wisconsin an end run around the normal legislative process. The unions have President Obama's support, but he has little power when it comes to labor relations in state and local government, an area where even the expansive commerce clause power of Congress probably does not extend.
America's private sector union movement in the United States is close to moribund. Maybe this is due to legislative changes, like labor laws that permit the permanent replacement of striking workers and tolerate significant management misconduct in organizing elections. Maybe it is due to the changing character of the economy that has reduced employment in traditionally unionized industries. Maybe labor is a victim of its own success. The causes are a matter of great debate and controversy. The result, however, is not. American private sector unions haven't been so impotent in numbers or as disinclined to cause work stoppages since long before the United States passed its first national labor laws during the Great Depression.
But, public sector unionization has soared and continues to grow in most states. (Colorado is an exception to the trend.) In part, this is because public sector unions, unlike private sector unions, have employees who can't easily be offshored and employers who can't convincing argue that their wages must be kept low in order to prevent them from losing their business to the competition. Civil service protections that public employees hold to protect them from politically motivated corrupt patronage systems have also made it safer to public employees to organize without fear of losing their jobs than comparable private sector employees. Recall that:
In 1950 . . .the unionized workforce of 14.3 million workers . . . made up 31.5% of the total work force.
In 2008 . . . the unionized workforce of 16.1 million workers who made up 12.4% of the total workforce. The public sector which is 36.8% unionized, is as unionized as the private sector was at its peak. The private sector, which is 7.2% unionized, has the lowest level of unionization in the private sector since the 1920s, if not earlier.
This is a huge deal. As I've noted before, policy more often changes through widespread imitation at historic moments than it does through isolated case by case rational analysis. If Wisconsin is successful in breaking its public employees unions and slashing public employee compensation, the trend will almost surely spread to almost every Republican controlled state in the United States. If public unions lose big in Wisconsin it could mean the end of organized labor unions as a potent force in the American economy and political system entirely for much of the United States.
While looming labor-management disputes in the NFL have attracted lots of attention, public sector unions at the state and local government level in places like Wisconsin are the bread and butter of the labor movement in the United States today. This dispute alone involves hundreds of thousands of middle class workers and their families losing three and a half weeks of pay a year.
Public sector unionization is a different animal than private sector unionization. Protection from unfair unemployment termination has generally been a secondary issue for them because they already have civil service protections. Some public sector unions are legally prohibited from going on strike. While private sector unions can organize politically for labor laws and other laws favorable to their members, public sector unions can organize politically to put union friendly politicians in direct control of their employer.
But, the potential for strikes by public employees to rise to the level of general strikes and to bring vital government services to a halt, whether or not it is legal for them to do so, has always loomed in the background, and covert "sick outs" and work to rule slowdowns remind negotiators of that fact. Denver's police (who publicly deny that this was the case) recently carried out just such a slowdown last year over dissatisfaction with the vigor with which the City of Denver had finally decided to apply to cracking down on instances of police misconduct. Wisconsin is experiencing its own sick outs right now.
Assuming that the political process will eventually prevail in Wisconsin and result in public sector union crushing legislation being passed there, the question is how Democrats and labor unions will respond. With the next election almost two years away, working through the normal political process may not seem like a sufficient response to a powerful political player that is facing deep pay cuts for every single one of its members without any opportunity to collectively bargain the matter and is also facing something close to their very extermination as a means by which the economic cause of state workers can be advanced.
If anything can produce a high profile showdown that could shut down the government of the State of Wisconsin entirely through a work stoppage, legal or otherwise, this frontal assault on public employees unions seems to be a good candidate for it. If public employees' unions in Wisconsin lose this fight, they may be gone for good, and may see much of the rest of the public sector labor movement follow them.
Can they win? There is really no way to know until it happens. The last general strike in the United States outside Puerto Rico was in 1934. But, if public sector unions in Wisconsin manage to inflict decisive political pain on the Republican party in the state, even if they lose on the legislative front for the time being, they may have a real shot at remaining a relevant force in American politics.