Demonstrators in Madison have been at it for two weeks now, camped out in the capitol building and filling the chilly streets in protest of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to gut most collective bargaining rights for teachers, social workers, snow plow drivers, and other public employees across the state.
As they chanted "This is what democracy looks like," demonstrators in Madison Saturday hoped to top the 70,000 that had gathered last weekend. They’ve been joined by steelworkers, teamsters, nurses, airline pilots, and other private sector union workers. Around the country, in state capitals and other towns and cities, supporters rallied as well.
So far, everything in Madison has remained peaceful with law enforcement officers acting more like chaperones at a mass sleepover.
But those hundreds of people camped out in the capitol rotunda – resting on sleeping bags or munching on gift pizzas ordered by supporters across the country (and, according to one report, by a sympathetic fellow-traveler in Egypt) – face an important decision Sunday: Whether to leave then, as the police have said they must do so the place can be cleaned up, or stay put and risk arrest.
Meanwhile, the political impasse continues.
As Democratic lawmakers cried “shame, shame!” majority Republicans in the Wisconsin state Assembly abruptly cut off debate and passed Walker’s bill just after midnight Friday morning. But there things stand, with Senate Democrats (also in the minority) still holed up beyond state borders, denying Republicans the quorum necessary to pass the bill.
Some Republican governors have been enthusiastic in their support for Walker. Some, but not all.
“A few governors have embraced Walker’s politically-risky proposals on collective bargaining but the majority of them want no part of it, preferring a more conciliatory approach to public employee unions,” report James Hohmann and Alex Isenstadt at Politico.com. “They don’t want to spend political capital in a bloody flight with unions that either don’t have enough juice in their states to warrant their attention or, on the other hand, are too powerful to beat.”
“My belief is, as long as people know what they’re doing, collective bargaining is fine,” recently-elected Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) told a local radio station. So far, just five of the 29 Republican governors have added blurbs to the “Stand with Scott” web site set up by the Republican Governors Association.
As the drama drags on, Gov. Walker has to fend off criticisms that his main goal is not “budget repair,” as he claims, but union busting. His recorded conversation with a prankster claiming to be billionaire industrialist David Koch, a major Republican donor and tea party supporter, did not help him.
The true cost of unionized public employees is the subject of debate.
Supporters of Walker’s position say government-paid workers in unions have an especially good deal when compared to nonunion employees or private-sector unions. In tough economic times when many states have no choice but to tighten their belts, they say, unions make it much harder to balance budgets (which many states – unlike the federal government – are constitutionally required to do).
But there are important differences between private and public workers, points out Jeffrey Keefe, professor of labor and employment relations at Rutgers University – especially when education, experience, hours of work, organizational size, and other factors are taken into account.
Education level a key factor
For example, he points out in an analysis for the Economic Policy Institute, in Wisconsin, 59 percent of full-time public sector workers hold at least a four-year college degree, compared with 30 percent of full-time private sector workers. Nationally, the figures are similar: 54 percent of full-time state and local public sector workers hold at least a four-year college degree, compared with 35 percent of full-time private sector workers.
“These stark educational differences arise for two reasons,” writes Dr. Keefe. “First, many public employees are professionals and teachers in positions that require higher levels of education. Second, the movement to privatize public sector work has been accomplished in great part by moving low-skilled work from the public to private sector, where benefits are often more modest.”
At the same time, the Pew Center on the States recently rated Wisconsin as one of the “top performers” regarding its pension system – one of only four states whose pension system was fully-funded.
Important points, perhaps, but unlikely to sway the political battle over public employee unions.