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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.

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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.

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'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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