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Opinion

Wisconsin anti-union bill is a shameful attack on workers’ basic rights

Let's be clear: Governor Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues aren't really trying to balance the budget. They're using budget shortfalls caused by their own reckless tax cuts as a pretext for attacking collective-bargaining rights and the union movement.

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But blaming government workers for any of this is ridiculous. After all, what tanked our economy in the first place was gross conservative mismanagement of Wall Street and our housing markets.

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Facts about public workers

Undeterred, Republicans have singled out some isolated cases of extremely wasteful compensation practices to stoke the public anger. But those cases do not and should not define public-sector workers in the eyes of the American public. The fact is public sector workers do not make more than their private-sector counterparts. Indeed, only the erosion of the quality of private-sector jobs has made the comparison even somewhat close. Nor have public-sector unions become newly powerful. Public unionization rates remain at the same level as in the late 1970s.

Furthermore, government workers are in fact sharing the pain – 426,000 state and local government jobs have been cut since August 2008, and that number is projected to grow. Those still employed in nearly every state have experienced cuts in pay and benefits. And states with very low levels of public-sector unionization, among them Texas, Louisiana, and South Carolina, have some of the largest budget shortfalls as a share of their economy.

Yet simply stating these facts obscures the real story.

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This attack on unions makes little sense in the realm of policy, but it makes perfect political sense. The American electorate is rightfully upset in the face of high unemployment and weak economic growth and is looking for someone to blame. Republicans across the country have decided to direct this anger toward public-sector workers rather than Wall Street, where it should lie. It’s all part of a high-priced political payback to the corporate CEOs who spent massive sums to elect supplicant politicians.

Public-sector unions and the union movement are key supporters of progressive policies and the Democratic Party. Republicans and their funders see an opportunity to maim a key supporter of their opponents and don’t intend to see that opportunity slip away. In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to allow public-sector workers to collectively bargain. Today, it can be the first state to beat back these shameful political attacks on workers’ basic rights.


David Madland is director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington. Nick Bunker is a special assistant on that project.

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