The standoff between the Wisconsin governor’s office and the state’s public employees is the most recent, and perhaps the ugliest, confrontation stemming from the budget troubles states are experiencing. But do not be fooled into thinking that the demands Gov. Scott Walker is making have anything to do with closing the state’s budget deficit.
Surely, the serious financial concession Walker and legislative Republicans are insisting on will help ease budget woes, and the unions have said they are willing to accept those. But Walker is using the long recession, and the still-painful recovery, to make structural changes that have more to do with weakening the power of workers than fixing the budget. Walker wants to erode collective bargaining rights for nearly all state workers, essentially making the labor unions meaningless. Walker said he needs the flexibility to make budget cuts without the bother of collective bargaining, an alarmingly autocratic demand that has implications for all workers, not just Wisconsin state employees. [Take the U.S. News poll: Is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker right about the unions?]
Very few American workers are members of organized labor; just 11.9 percent of workers were in a union last year, down from 12.3 percent the previous year. Among private sector employees, the unionization rate was just 6.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union members tend to make more money than non-unionized workers, but elected officials (who don’t have to negotiate their salaries, and in some cases, can vote themselves a pay hike) have managed to convince non-unionized Americans that those in organized labor are too well paid, instead of considering the possibility that non-unionized workers are underpaid. President Obama’s announcement of a two-year pay freeze for federal workers won resounding approval from those not employed by the federal government.
A recession is an easy time to squeeze organized labor. What a shame the recession wasn’t used to squeeze more out of the hedge fund managers and bankers, who were substantially responsible for the near collapse of the economy—and managed to get their bonuses anyway. And the country’s richest 2 percent will keep their tax cuts, spared from making any sacrifices to close the deficit. That sacrifice is instead being demanded of workers such as Wisconsin’s state employees. [Take the U.S. News poll: Are Wisconsin teachers unfair to skip school for protests?]
It’s a mistake to assume that union-negotiated benefits only help those in organized labor groups. Child labor laws, wage and hour laws, antidiscrimination laws, and a tradition of weekends off? Those were all forced by organized labor, and all workers benefit from it. Walker’s demands are meant, clearly and simply, to break the unions. That would not bring any more cash into the state coffers, but it would deliver a stunning blow to the diminishing ranks that fight for workers’ rights. Constituents understandably get irritated when they see public employee unions fight contract concessions—and it doesn’t help that the media tends to refer to such battles as "labor troubles," suggesting it is the workers who are being unreasonable. The unions’ best response? You’re welcome for your weekend.