The showdown between public unions and the governor of Wisconsin is drama likely to be replayed in other budget-challenged states during the next few months and may determine whether American unions rebound or become a fading fixture of the past.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 44 states and Puerto Rico have introduced legislation governing labor unions and collective bargaining.
Because so much is at stake, both pro- and anti-labor groups around the nation have sent protesters to Wisconsin during the past week to support their cause. Thousands of protesters, including teachers, rallied in Madison, the state capital, to voice their concerns. Anti-labor protesters have also marched in the streets to express their support for a proposed measure to strip public unions of much of their power.
At the center of the debate is Governor Scott Walker's proposal to save $330 million through mid-2013. Under the plan, government workers will have to pay more than half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their healthcare premiums. Unions would still be allowed to represent workers, but could not seek pay increases above the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum. Firefighters, police officers, and state troopers would be exempted under the new plan.
Labor officials say they are willing to compromise on pension and healthcare benefits, but not their ability to freely negotiate on behalf of government workers. At the national level, the budget battles feature organize labor, a key base of Democrats, and fiscally conservative Republicans, the key to GOP election gains last November.
Although public unions are being blamed for many of Wisconsin's woes, they are not the real culprits.
The Associated Press reported on February 1st, that a "new analysis released Monday showed that Wisconsin's budget could be between $79 and $340 million short by June 30, 2013 due largely to anticipated Medicaid expenses and a court-ordered repayment to a fund that was raided four years ago."
Wisconsin is obligated to pay Minnesota $58.7 million after the end of a tax-reciprocity agreement between the two neighboring states. The state is under court order to pay $200 million that was illegally transferred in 2007 from a state medical malpractice fund, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Further complicating matters, Governor Walker pushed through tax cuts in his first month in office that are estimated to bring in $117 million less in projected state taxes during the next two year. Another $72 million drop is a result of lower than expected tax revenues.
Like his federal counterparts, Walker argued that the lower tax cuts will create economic growth. This is the same argument that President George W. Bush used in getting two federal tax reductions through Congress. But, the promised economic growth never materialized.
In Wisconsin, organized labor is losing the public relations battle as anti-labor Republicans enjoy a larger share of state houses and governors' mansions.
According to a survey conducted earlier this month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, "The favorability ratings for labor unions remain at nearly their lowest level in a quarter century with 45% expressing a positive view. Yet the public expresses similar opinions about business corporations – 47% have a favorable impression – and this rating is also near a historic low."
The Pew report observes: "Americans express mixed views of the impact of labor unions on salaries and working conditions, international competitiveness, job availability and productivity. About half (53%) say unions have had a positive effect on the salaries and benefits of union workers, while just 17% say they have had a negative effect. Views are similar about the impact of unions on working conditions for all workers (51% positive, 17% negative)."
It is ironic that the debate over the role of unions is being played out in Wisconsin, the first state to enact of major collective bargaining law in 1959. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was founded in 1936 in Madison.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the union membership rate of public sector workers (36.2 percent) is more than five times the private rate of 6.9 percent. Within the public sector, union membership was highest among local government workers such as police officers, fire fighters, and teachers.
A Labor Department survey in 2010 showed that African-Americans were more likely to be union members (13.7 percent) than Whites (11.7 percent)), Asians (10.9 percent) or Hispanics (10 percent).
Unionized full-time wage and salary workers had a median weekly income of $917 in 2010. Workers not represented by unions earned $717 -- $200 less than union wages.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 11.9 percent of all wage and salary workers in the U.S. belonged to unions in 2010, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.
By all accounts, labor unions were primarily responsible for creating the American middle class in the bygone era when manufacturing was king. In an era of economic belt-tightening and rising Republican influence in politics, however, they are serving as convenient scapegoats for pro-business voices that wanted to get rid of them all along.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.