People@Work: Wisconsin Picks the Wrong Scapegoat for Its Budget Woes

Protesters in Wisconsin kept the heat on Republican lawmakers in that Midwestern state over the weekend, demanding that the legislature drop a provision in Gov. Scott Walker's "budget repair" bill that would restrict public sector workers' right to collectively bargain for benefits and work rules.

Walker has shown no willingness to compromise, saying that repealing these rights is necessary to balance the state's budget. In the process of demonizing those who are essentially his own workforce, Walker has inflamed passions -- and reinvigorated the nation's flagging union movement.

It remains unclear why Walker is making the demands he is. Reducing state workers' ability to collectively bargain won't do anything to aid the state's budget woes, which are pretty mild compared to the red ink some other states are bleeding.

An Opportunity to "Crush the Unions"

So why are middle-class workers who happen to work for the state the target of such bullying from Wisconsin's chief executive? Walker and his Republican colleagues in the legislature view the fiscal crisis as an "an opportunity to do something that they wanted to do all along, which is to crush the unions," says Rebecca Givan, assistant professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University's ILR School.

Some Republicans are simply angry about labor's involvement in elections. Unions donate a lot of time and "decent amount of money" to help get candidates elected, Givan says in an interview. The candidates not on the receiving end of that largess would like to see unions eliminated.

But scapegoating public workers is backfiring for another reason. The notion that somehow public workers' pay packages are breaking the budget just don't hold up. These workers' entire compensation package -- salary, health care, pensions, etc. -- make up a tiny fraction of the state budget, Givan says.

They also didn't create the state's current budget woes. So, why should public workers have to suffer for a lack of stewardship in Madison?

A Race to the Bottom

"The reason union members are being asked to pay the price is that people who don't get good pensions and health care -- instead of taking the attitude that we should all have better pensions and health care -- are taking the attitude that 'I don't want my taxes to pay for people to get something that I don't get,'" Givan says.

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Essentially, what critics of public workers' compensation are promoting is a race to the bottom -- he who has least, wins.

It's no coincidence that average workers' wages have stagnated in the last few decades as union rolls have declined in the U.S. Only about 7% of today's private sector workforce is unionized, leaving the vast majority of workers to negotiate their own compensation. The ability of union workers to negotiate fair, livable wages as a group -- via collective bargaining -- is the tide that raises all boats, while the lone worker gets swallowed up by the storm.

And while it's true that public sector workers do have generally better health care and pension packages than their private sector counterparts, that's a fact regardless of whether that state's workers are represented by a union or not, Givan says. So, to argue that unions force better benefits packages for public sectors workers is a falsehood.

Moreover, public sector jobs have traditionally offered lower pay than comparable private sector positions. In return, public employees get higher levels of benefits and more job security.

A Long, Uphill Climb

The protests in Wisconsin and the solidarity shown by union workers and their supporters in other states prove that unions have a positive side, Givan says. "It's channeling a lot of the anger that people have aimed at corporate greed and to a lesser extent the campaign finance system."

Still, the momentum isn't likely to boost numbers of union workers in the private sector, she says, "just because the union-busting industry is so big and profitable and virulent that it's still a huge challenge."