People@Work: Collective-Bargaining Rights Are at Stake in Wisconsin

Thousands of state employees and their backers gathered at the state capitol in Madison, Wis., for the seventh straight day Monday, protesting legislation proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that would eliminate most of those workers' collective bargaining rights.

Gov. Walker and his Republican colleagues say the measure, which would also raise workers' health care and pension contributions, is needed to stave off a $137 million budget shortfall.

But critics aren't buying that reasoning, noting that one of Walker's first acts in assuming office was to pass several tax breaks that led to the deficit. Critics view the Republicans' move as mere politics.

What's really going on, Mother Jones magazine reports, is pure partisan warfare: "Walker is trying to de-fund the unions that form the backbone of the Democratic party. The unions and the Democrats are, of course, fighting back."

Obama Is in the Workers' Corner

Walker's proposal would strip the rights of some, but not all, state and local of their collective-bargaining rights. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein points out, such groups as local law-enforcement and fire employers as well as state troopers and inspectors would be exempt from the changes.

Walker tries to sell the change in collective bargaining as modest. "State and local employees could continue to bargain for base pay, they would not be able to bargain over other compensation measures." But that's not really true.

Among Walker's critics is President Obama, who last week said the governor was mounting "an assault" on public-employee unions. That's an apt description, says Randolph McLaughlin, professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y., specializing in labor law. "It's window dressing," he says. "It's not going to affect the budget or the deficit in that state."

Should the legislation become law, it's possible that Wisconsin state workers may file a lawsuit seeking to overturn the act. Such a claim, which would be filed in federal court, wouldn't be difficult to craft, McLaughlin says. One strategy might be to argue that the action is a denial of due process and that the state is taking away a right it granted public employees decades ago.

Still, given the novelty of such a claim, the strategy workers might pursue in it isn't easily discerned.

"I've never heard a case of state trying to deny collective-bargaining rights for its workers," McLaughlin says, noting that since the 1930s, when the National Labor Relations Board was established, no state has ever sought to prohibit workers from organizing. "That's draconian," he says.

No Sign of Compromise

Whether Walker will be successful in limiting workers' right to negotiate collectively is still being played out. Democrats in the state Senate, all 14 of them, have fled across the Illinois state line, some 40 miles south, to stall a vote on the measure in the hope that Walker will be forced to negotiate.

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As of Monday afternoon, however, the governor remained defiant, saying he wasn't willing to compromise.

What the governor is trying to do is to show that Wisconsin is a good place to do business and hopefully attract new and relocating companies, says Wisconsin native Michael Brandl, a professor of economics and finance at University of Texas at Austin. "One way to do that, in their view, is to show that their labor markets are flexible," he says.

It isn't clear why Walker isn't willing to be flexible, especially in light of a poll showing that Wisconsin residents back the union workers. The survey, conducted Thursday by polling group We Ask America, asked Wisconsin residents if they approve or disapprove of Walker's plans. According to the poll 51.9% disapproved, while 43.1% approved and 5.1% were uncertain.

"We certainly think we're winning the public debate on this," says Jon Erpenbach, one of the Senate Democrats who has fled to Chicago. "People understand this isn't about money. It's about stripping collective-bargaining rights, and that's unsettling to them."

What's the Endgame?

Labor leaders are no doubt keenly awaiting the dispute's outcome. Should Wisconsin workers lose their right to collective bargaining, other states, including Ohio, may soon try to follow suit, leading to further protests.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told Talking Points Memo that he expects to see similar opposition from fellow Democrats in his own state should legislation that mirrors Wisconsin's make its way through the Ohio legislature.

"I don't know what the endgame is any more than I know the endgame of the budget here," Brown said. "I think they're going to fight back. And I think they're figuring right now what to do."