Democrats flee Wisconsin to avoid union vote

Teacher Cyndi Ehrhart (L) and Anne McClure (R) join protesters marching at the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisc. Protesters were demonstrating against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers.


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.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.
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Why did Marketplace solicit opinion from the Mercatus Center, without identifying it for what it is, a libertarian organization, funded almost entirely (if not entirely) by the Koch brothers, who also fund Tea Party organizations? This is biased reporting, on the part of MarketPlace.

In the private sector, no union has the power to choose the managers it bargains with. But for some reason when someone finally suggests fixing this recipe for corruption in just *some* areas in the public sector, there is public outcry. Why should government bureaucrats, or even teachers, get to play both sides against the middle at taxpayer expense?

in years when Wisconsin state workers received no pay raises, they were compensated by having the state pick up a larger portion of the retirement contribution. Over an individual's working life, this amounts to a sizable saving for the state, both because subsequent raises were calculated on a smaller base salary and the retirement contributions also were based on that lower salary. Telling workers they now have to pay that contribution themselves is taking away a previous pay raise.

Previous negotiations have saved the state money over the long-term. That is why the rise in employee contributions in the current proposal are unfair.

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Our new governor is attempting to eviscerate employees' rights to bargain collectively for the conditions of their employment. Governor Walker's action could, and probably will, affect the rest of what's left of the hard-working folk throughout the US. Do not underestimate the potential impact of this legislation.

No one denys that belts need to be tightened and adjustments made to cope with fiscal reality. But make no mistake, our governor's actions are not about balancing the budget with salary reductions or increases in the cost of benefits. They are about denying the workers in Wisconsin the right to discuss, bargain for and compromise on the conditions under which they work. The workers of Wisconsin, from snow plow drivers (my unsung heroes this winter) to DMV clerks to the teachers of our children, know what they need to do their jobs well. They have a right to be heard. They need to have a voice for themselves and for the benefit and protection of those they serve.

All workers need to have a voice - a collective voice - that will help to insure that they can work in safety, that they can make a positive difference with their work, and that honest labor will be justly rewarded. We will all suffer if even one of us has no recourse when (s)he is told to sit down, shut up and take whatever sop we are given.

Governor Walker created the shortfall just weeks ago with some hastily arranged pork spending, probably just to claim collective bargaining was a problem. If anything, the lost wages public workers suffer from this proposal would further drag the state's economy down. There's also some opinion, very much like that in Mr. Knell's post, that this is just retaliation for the public employee unions opposing Walker in last year's campaign. The only public employee unions that supported him-police, firefighters and the State Patrol-are exempt from the proposed cuts. I'm afraid Walker is not merely divisive, but aggressive and antagonistic enough to incite real disorder. The governor seems to have no feeling whatsoever for the mood of the citizenry, most of whom watch the favored few do increasingly better while their own standard of living plummets.

Wisconsin Governor Walker has proposed eliminating collective bargaining over all non-economic issues. How is that justified by his claim that his proposal is based on the state’s budget situation?

It's not about budget deficits. It's about defunding the opposition by destroying unions. Who wrecked the American economy? Not public workers!

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