Wisconsin has a new law, but future of unions still a hot issue

Gov. Scott Walker has prevailed so far in his effort to strip public employees of most collective bargaining rights. The epic political battle in Wisconsin has accelerated the national debate on the role of labor unions.

By , Staff writer

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    Despite the cold, tens of thousands of protesters turned out to rally on Saturday, March 12, against Gov. Scott Walker's budget bill repealing most collective bargaining rights for public employee unions.
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A day after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed an act that strips collective-bargaining rights from public employee unions, protesters in the state capital made clear that they don't think the fight is over.

Thousands of union members and labor supporters rallied in the state capital, Madison, determined to continue opposing the new law.

In fact, the epic political battle in Wisconsin appears to have only accelerated, not decided, a national debate on the role of labor unions for public-sector workers.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin Capitol protests

Within Wisconsin, labor unions and their supporters are ramping up efforts to hold recall elections designed to oust state senators who voted for the governor's plan, and Mr. Walker himself could face a recall push in 2012. (Petitioners in Wisconsin can't mount a recall drive until an elected official has held office for one year, which for Walker will be next January.)

The act also faces a legal challenge over tactics used by the state's Senate Republicans to pass the bill.

And the machinations in Wisconsin – public protests, the out-of-state flight by Democratic senators opposed to the bill, and more – have captured national attention at a time when many states are wrestling with budget shortfalls.

Those immediate budget troubles largely reflect the lingering impacts of recession. But because many public pensions are underfunded, the fiscal problems have also heightened debate about whether public unions are creating a fiscal time bomb for states or not.

Walker has galvanized unions nationwide to defend their turf. But other states, including Ohio and Iowa, are debating their own measures to scale unions back.

In Iowa, the Republican-controlled House approved a bill Friday to reduce worker bargaining powers. But the bill is not expected to pass the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority.

In Ohio, where Republicans control both legislative bodies and the governorship, Republicans are pushing their own plan to curb union bargaining power. But like the recall effort in Wisconsin, passage of the bill could prompt opponents to try to repeal it via referendum.

All this has opened a renewed battle to win American public opinion on the issue.

"The People’s Party is growing across America – and the actions of Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues are giving it even greater momentum," former Labor Secretary Robert Reich opined in a blog post this week.

Walker, for his part, says he believes support for his measure will grow as the public sees government becoming more efficient.

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"What we're doing here," he told the Associated Press Friday, "is progressive. It's innovative. It's reform that leads the country."

Critics of collective bargaining in the public sector argue that government workplaces are inherently different than the private sector.

They argue that, where bargaining between a private firm and a union is framed by the employer's profit potential, public-employee unions are negotiating with an employer that has no competition, the power to tax, and that often reaps benefits (campaign contributions) from the unions.

Labor movement supporters argue that unions, in all sectors of the economy, can help lift up the wages and benefits of all workers, without bankrupting private firms or governments.

They also say unions have shown willingness to make concessions -– in Wisconsin and elsewhere – as the recession has taken a toll on state budgets.

Editor's note: Monitor staff photographer Ann Hermes traveled with Wisconsin farmers in a 'tractorcade' to the Wisconsin state capital in Madison.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin Capitol protests

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