Union battle echoes beyond Wisconsin: 'We’re fighting for our very existence'

Other states are watching Wisconsin's bid to virtually break labor unions as a means of cutting huge deficits. Unions in Wisconsin and beyond see this as a Waterloo moment.

By , Staff writer

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    Protesters of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers pack the rotunda at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Thursday.
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About 40,000 public-sector employees crammed into the Wisconsin state Capitol and surrounding blocks in Madison Thursday, hoping to sway three Republican state senators to block a bill they say is designed to wipe out 50 years of union labor laws in the state.

“We’re fighting for our very existence,” says Mike Lipp, president of Madison Teachers Incorporated, representing 2,500 public school teachers in the city.

The political drama was set in motion Monday when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) proposed a bill that he says is necessary shore up the state deficit. The bill would force workers in non-law-enforcement unions to pay more for their pension and health benefits, remove their collective-bargaining power on anything but wages, force members to vote every 12 months to certify their union’s existence, and bar them from deducting union dues from state paychecks.

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Governor Walker says the measures would save the state nearly $30 million through the end of June and nearly $300 million during the next two fiscal years. The state faces a projected $3.6 billion gap during the next two years, and other states such as Ohio and Tennessee, which are in similar fiscal situations and are considering similar bills, are tracking Wisconsin to see how the controversy plays out.

“There is no question that the big-business elites in this country and the political right wing together see the recession in general – and state and local fiscal crises in particular – as an opportunity to advance their agenda,” says Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 in Illinois.

Desperation in Madison

By Tuesday, the Madison hill was swamped with thousands of protesters, who attended a 17-hour public hearing. Since then, union supporters from Wisconsin and from surrounding states have grown in numbers. Schools were shut down for third straight day in Madison, and even President Obama has weighed in on the matter, telling a Milwaukee television station he felt unions were under an “assault.”

“I think it's very important for us to understand that public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends,” he said.

Preventing the bill’s passage are Senate Democrats who have fled the state to prevent a quorum. The 33-member state Senate needs 20 members present for the passage of a fiscal bill, making the chamber’s 19 Republicans not enough for a vote.

'Unions won't go away'

But if the bill is eventually passed, what then for unions? “Public working environments are likely to become more tense than they ever have been” in past decades, says Dennis Dresang, a political scientist at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Strikes, campaigns to sack senators who supported the bill, and “sick-ins” from work are likely to resurface.

“Unions won’t go away, I think that’s for sure. [Walker’s bill] is likely going to really get them more energized than they have in decades,” Mr. Dresang says.
Republican leaders in Wisconsin have suggested that the November election results have handed them a mandate to dramatically alter their state’s fiscal behavior.

“It’s going to be a challenge for the unions," says Jim Sullivan, a labor lawyer who represents employers and school districts in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. "If they don’t see this as a wakeup call and have some responsible leadership that allows for changes in some of the contracts, they’re going to end up stripped of their bargaining rights."

Public-sector employees compensated more?

One of the arguments Walker has made is that public-sector workers are compensated at a higher rate than those in the private sector. But according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, Wisconsin’s public sector workers get compensations that are 4.8 percent less than those for their counterparts in the private sector.

Dresang argues that the structure of how public workers are paid also saves the state money. He says that 26.7 percent of public-worker compensation is in benefits, compared with 11 to 17 percent for private workers. Because more public-worker compensation is in benefits, the state government is able to purchase health-care and pension packages in bulk, “which actually costs taxpayers less,” he says.

Union supporters say these considerations are not being discussed because Wisconsin’s Republican leadership has rushed to pass the bill in less than a week.

“It’s not an economic issue, we’re willing to pay our fair share,” says Mr. Lipp of the Madison union. “We realize everybody needs to help the issue.”

He adds that making police, fire, and state trooper unions exempt from the bill reflects the governor’s political agenda. “He’s afraid of those people,” he says.

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