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Kai Ryssdal: This is another day of protests. Some in the places that've been in the news a while, several countries in the Middle East, and we'll go to Cairo in just a little bit.
But we begin today in Wisconsin, where a budget deficit and the politics of collective bargaining rights for state workers are front and center. Democratic members of the state senate have absented themselves to points unknown in order prevent a vote. Teachers and public sector workers are occupying parts of the statehouse. It's a mess wrapped up in a budget conundrum.
Marketplace Jeff Tyler has the details.
Jeff Tyler: Wisconsin's governor wants state workers to pay for half of their pensions, and he wants to limit their use of collective bargaining except for minor wage increases.
Eileen Norcross is a senior fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Eileen Norcross: What this allows them to do is alter the formulas going forward. To require workers to put in more of their wages into the pension system to ensure this can be paid out.
She sees the governor's plan as a pragmatic attempt to address the state's $3.6 billion shortfall.
Norcross: One of the problems, and not just in Wisconsin but throughout the country, is that these plans have been undervalued, underfunded. And a lot of that is driven by the kind of benefit enhancements that were granted in the past, as the result of collective bargaining. And those things are very hard to undo.
Nationwide, over the last year and a half, about 400,000 public workers lost their jobs. Robert Ward with the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government says it's likely to get worse.
Robert Ward: During this coming year, nationwide, we will probably see state and local government decline by something in the range of 300,000 to 500,000.
Ward says the public sector job losses have had a big impact on unions.
Ward: From the union's perspective, it certainly is a big loss of members, dues and the ability to do the job.
Some see a challenge to the whole notion of unions in this country.
Harley Shaiken: I think in Wisconsin, it is raw politics masquerading as a budget issue.
That's Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in labor issues.
Shaiken: There is a serious deficit in Wisconsin. But the total potential savings from eliminating unions is about 10 percent of that or less.
Other governors may also challenge collective bargaining. But Shaiken says unions may fight back by using the issue to raise funds and rally the troops ahead of the 2012 election.
I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.