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Madison protest: Unions are angry – but Wisconsin should go even further

Union protests in Wisconsin have intensified pressure on Governor Scott Walker's bold plan to curtail public-sector union power. For the sake of fiscal health, Wisconsin should go even further by prohibiting all collective bargaining in the public sector.

By Chris Edwards / February 18, 2011


Chaos in government. Tens of thousands of angry protesters in the streets. Schools closed. Yes, Wisconsin looks a lot like Egypt this week. But while Arabs are fighting to end extraordinary overreach by government, Wisconsin union protesters are fighting to preserve it.

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At the heart of the dispute is a bold plan by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) to curtail collective bargaining by most but not all of his state’s public-sector workers, including teachers. That is a long overdue reform – but the governor’s plan doesn’t go far enough! A dozen or so states, including Virginia, where I live, do not allow collective bargaining in the public sector at all, and these states are doing just fine without it.

ANOTHER VIEW: Wisconsin anti-union bill is a shameful attack on workers' basic rights

The government union issue is coming to the forefront because states, facing huge deficits, are desperate to reform their budgets and cut pensions. Wisconsin is just one of several states where legislatures, empowered by Republican victories last fall, are finally tackling one of the root causes: the ability of public-sector unions to squeeze taxpayers for exorbitant benefits. In states that have unionized workforces, needed reforms are facing huge and aggressive anti-reform lobbying campaigns by the unions.

In 2010, 36 percent of state and local workers were members of unions, which is five times the union share in the US private sector. Yet prior to the 1960s, unions represented less than 15 percent of the state and local workforce. At the time, courts generally held that public-sector workers did not have the same union privileges that private workers had under the 1935 Wagner Act, such as collective bargaining.

The rise of public-sector unions

That changed during the 1960s and 1970s, as a flood of pro-union laws in dozens of states triggered a dramatic rise in public-sector unionism. Many states passed laws that encouraged collective bargaining in the public sector, as well as laws that imposed compulsory union dues.

IN PICTURES: Pensions around the world

Today, the union shares in government workforces vary widely by state. About 26 states have collective bargaining for essentially all state and local workers. A further 12 or so states have collective bargaining for a portion of their state and local workers, and the remaining 12 states do not have public sector collective bargaining. At the same time, 22 states have “right-to-work” laws, which free workers from being forced to join a union or pay union dues.

These differences in unionization between the states affect fiscal policy. Statistical studies find that unionized public sector workers earn a wage premium of about 10 percent over non-unionized public sector workers. This is important because employee compensation represents half of all state and local government spending.


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