Wisconsin protesters can win, but not as they might think
In Wisconsin, and now Ohio, public unions are on the defensive over collective bargaining 'rights.' Both sides need to see the larger picture to find common ground.
First Wisconsin, and now Ohio, have moved to deflate the power of public-worker unions. Other states, even with Democrats in charge, are asking concessions from government workers – on wages, pensions, and health benefits.Skip to next paragraph
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So far, the battle has been rancorous and divisive, appearing to pit unions against taxpayers. The focus has been on laws passed in many states since 1959 – starting with Wisconsin – that allow civil servants to strike or that require forced mediation in disputes.
Meanwhile, this struggle over “collective bargaining” by public unions is seen as a proxy for the future of private-sector unions, which have been in decline since 1970.
One side sees public unions as necessary to help government employees keep or achieve middle-class incomes, and even to reduce the nation’s rising disparity in income and a stagnation in wages.
Others see such public unions as inherently flawed, given their peculiar power to help elect politicians who often then cave to union demands while letting future taxpayers pick up the bill.
Both sides wrangle over conflicting studies on whether public workers are compensated higher or lower than private workers. They also debate how much civil servants must now share in the sacrifices needed to balance government budgets.
So far this debate has been too narrow.
Political tactics and old arguments seem to matter more than finding a fresh perspective that could point to solutions. All sides need to step back, take a breath, and look for a bigger picture.
The confrontation over public unions, which comes mainly from elected Republicans but is also driven by declining state coffers, is just one of many debates that arose from the 2007-08 Great Recession.
From Wall Street bailouts to housing subsidies to the extension of Bush-era tax cuts, Americans have largely quarreled over one topic: who gets what in a sluggish economy, or how to fairly distribute the nation’s wealth.
Private unions, which rose to strength in the 1930s, were once seen as the great equalizers for lower-income Americans. They largely were. By the 1960s, Democratic leaders began to pass laws giving public workers the same clout.
Private unions did well as long as companies had few choices on where to do business. But when companies began to move to nonunion states or, more important, moved their factory operations overseas, the movement declined. In 2008, only 7.2 percent of private workers were in unions.
Now with the unemployment rate expected to persist at 8 to 9 percent for years, and with a falloff in federal aid to states, public unions are under similar pressure. Collective bargaining may no longer be the only way to ensure workers can enjoy rising incomes.