Union membership has declined precipitously in the U.S., in some measure because private-sector employers can fire employees for trying to organize a union and pay only small fines as a cost of doing business. Public-sector employers, by contrast, rarely if ever terminate employees for organizing, and membership has skyrocketed among teachers, police, firefighters, and some higher-education employees.
Now, a number of Republican governors are striking back and seeking to curtail, or even end, collective bargaining rights for public employees, including those in higher education. The epicenter is Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is using the budget crisis as a pretext not just to trim pay and benefits for public employees, but also to constrain the right of collective bargaining itself.
Wisconsin, the first state in the union to provide for collective-bargaining rights to public employees in 1959, is now, ironically, trying to move in the direction of states which prohibit or severely limit the rights of public employees to bargain collectively. Most of those states are in the former Confederacy.
In Wisconsin, teachers, professors, graduate students, and other public employees have been marching in Madison to oppose efforts by Gov. Walker to limit collective bargaining to wages. (For University of Wisconsin faculty and staff, the bill would strip collective-bargaining rights entirely.)
The press is painting the battle as one between Democrats, who are helped by unions, and Republicans, who want to crush a key Democratic constituency; and politics is undeniably a huge motivating force in this debate. But on the merits, Walker’s proposal is flawed for several reasons.
For one thing, economists will note that in order to attract a given quality of candidate, the entire package of compensation is what’s relevant. If unions can no longer bargain for superior benefits, in the form of pensions or health care, government will either have to raise wages to make the entire package more attractive, or will attract a weaker pool of candidates.
For another, severely limiting the scope of collective bargaining to wages undercuts another important function of unions: to democratize the workplace by increasing workers’ voices on important issues. As the late Albert Shanker, the head of the American Federation of Teachers noted, conservatives who want to limit the scope of bargaining to issues like wages shrewdly put teachers’ unions in a box. Teachers and their unions also care about curriculum, and class size, and discipline codes, and equality in school funding. But when conservatives force them only to bargain over issues like wages, it makes teachers look as if they’re selfish and only care about money.
In the political debate in Wisconsin, both sides are taking some cheap shots. As Jack Stripling notes in The Chronicle, some professors have made a point of noting that Gov. Walker lacks a college degree, a tactic unlikely to win over members of the public—more than two-thirds of whom also lack four-year degrees. Gov. Walker, meanwhile, is cynically pitting private employees against public employees. He told a radio station that private manufacturing plant workers who “don’t have pensions” are not sympathetic to public employees who do. It appears not to occur to Walker that instead of leveling down, private employees could also unionize in order to win decent health-care and pension benefits.
Harold Meyerson, writing in the Washington Post, compared Wisconsin to Egypt and Scott Walker to Hosni Mubarak. There are, of course, enormous differences between the democratically-elected governor of Wisconsin and the deposed Egyptian dictator, but there are some interesting parallels. Wisconsin is witnessing, as Egypt did, a powerful alliance of students and workers. And the “assault on unions,” as Barack Obama properly characterized the legislation in Wisconsin, eats away at our democracy by undercutting the one viable sector of what was once a thriving American labor movement. The fight in Wisconsin, in other words, is about much more than health and pension benefits, as important as those are. It’s about the continuing vitality of the one force in American democracy that can provide a check on corporate power, and at the same time can give employees democratic voice in the workplace.
As one commentator ominously noted, “if it can happen in Wisconsin, it can happen everywhere.”