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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The capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, is the scene of a standoff both deeply scary and profoundly inspiring. Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans are trying take away the right of most government workers to collectively bargain. This basic right – to negotiate with your employer on an even footing – has nothing to do with Wisconsin’s budget crisis. The crisis is largely the result of Governor Walker’s massive tax giveaways, a huge cost that he’s now trying to cover by targeting state workers.

This is scary because if Walker and his colleagues succeed, it is likely to have a cascading effect on the dozen or so states where Republicans are also mounting similar campaigns against workers. And it is inspiring because tens of thousands of state residents – students, private-sector workers, government employees, and retirees – have begun to recognize these attacks as the political bullying they are and have peacefully gathered at the state capitol to say “No” to the scapegoating of teachers, nurses, and prison guards.

Bogus justification

These citizens understand that Republicans are using budget shortfalls as a pretext for attacking an already weakened union movement in hopes of crippling their political opponent. They know that these attacks won’t create jobs or help the state get out of its budget mess, but instead will leave their state in much worse shape, with worse schools and services, and no one left to fight for the middle class.

Walker and his fellow Wisconsin Republicans are rapidly pushing a bill through the statehouse that would severely restrict the ability of most public-sector unions to collectively bargain on pensions and health benefits. It would also cap wage increases. And the governor is attempting to intimidate his opponents by repeatedly stating that he would put the National Guard on alert in case of “unrest.”

Gov. Walker’s justification for restricting the rights of workers in the name of fiscal rectitude would be much more convincing if the governor had not signed three bills that cut taxes and increase the deficit by $117 million. According to a memo from the Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau, the governor did not inherit a budget deficit in need of repair. Wisconsin would have been in a far better fiscal situation without those tax cuts. But those cuts gave him a convenient excuse to go after public-sector unions.

Sadly, Republicans in virtually every state where they are in power are following a similar strategy, pushing bills that attack public-sector unions in Ohio, Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Florida, to name just a few states. To be sure, governments across our country face budget nightmares because of the sharp downturn in tax revenue during the Great Recession, especially from property taxes amid the housing crisis. Governments will have to make very tough choices, possibly including further cutbacks for government employees, even as governments struggle to maintain needed government services.

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.

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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