David Madland is the Director of the American Worker Project, Center for American Progress Action Fund
The reason we are currently having a debate over the rights of public sector workers and their unions is because conservatives across the country are trying to leverage the budget problems that many states currently face to attack a political opponent and further weaken unions. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is leading the charge, but a similar dynamic is playing out in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Idaho, and Tennessee—to name a few—where conservatives are pushing bills to strip workers' rights to bargain collectively.
Walker and others may claim their concerns are fiscal. But his proposal and similar attempts are hard to read as anything but politics. His proposal, for example, doesn't touch the tax cuts he just passed, which added over $100 million to Wisconsin's projected budget deficit. And his proposal would only strip collective bargaining rights from some workers. It exempts firefighters and police officers, whose unions supported his campaign for governor. [See photos of the Wisconsin protests.]
States are facing large budget deficits, and sacrifices will have to be made to reduce them. Public employees, however, do not need to be stripped of their rights to solve budget problems.
And the absence of public sector unions does not necessarily help balance state budgets, either. Texas, which does not allow collective bargaining and has a very weak union movement, faces a $27 billion budget deficit over the next two fiscal years, a budget deficit similar in size to California's, but with a much smaller economy. [Vote now: Is Walker right about unions?]
Governments have budget problems because of the recession, which was caused by Wall Street speculation and not the middle-class lifestyle of teachers. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, public sector workers are not overpaid. They make about 4 percent less compared to similar employees in the private sector.
Public sector unions also are not newly powerful. Unionization rates for government employees are roughly the same as they have been for the past three decades. Government employees have already seen reductions in pay through furloughs, and 426,000 state and local government jobs have been cut since August 2008.
Most public sector workers are even willing to make further sacrifices. They agreed, for example, to the wage and benefit concessions that Governor Walker is demanding. [Take to U.S. News poll: Are Wisconsin teachers being unfair by skipping school to protest?]
The bottom line is that the right to advocate for a fair wage and decent work conditions should be available to all workers whether they work for private or public employers. Governments, like corporations, sometimes need to be reminded by organized workers to treat their employees fairly.
Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis in 1968 to help city sanitation workers gain recognition for their union as they faced low pay, terrible working conditions, and racist supervisors. Even the conservative icon Ronald Reagan recognized that public sector workers should be able to collectively bargain. Reagan signed a bill to grant municipal and county employees the right to do so when he was governor of California.
State and local governments can work to reduce deficits without engaging in political attacks on workers. Tough choices need to be made, but we don't have to go down the path Walker and others are forcing us toward.
Read the American Enterprise Institute's Andrew Biggs on why public sector unions should not keep collective bargaining rights.
- Take the U.S. News poll: Is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker right about the unions?
- See photos of the protests in Wisconsin.
- See a slide show of the best cities to find a job.