The battle in Wisconsin: A primer

  • Updated: February 26, 2011 - 4:54 PM

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and unionized public employees have squared off in a battle that mixes economics and politics with labor and management rights. Similar battles have spread to Indiana and Ohio. Here's a primer on the crisis:

Q What is happening in Wisconsin?

A Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed charging public employees more for their health insurance and pension benefits, setting off a firestorm of demonstrations. It also prompted all Democratic senators to flee the state, in effect blocking any action. Walker also called for limiting the right of unionized government workers to bargain collectively.

Q Why are the governments proposing the changes?

A Walker argues that Wisconsin is broke and needs to pass some of the costs of the benefits back to its employees. Unions have said they are willing to talk, but Walker insists there is no point in such bargaining since he has nothing to put on the table. Eliminating collective bargaining rights would allow all levels of government some flexibility in coping with rising health and pension costs without having to deal with the unions and without having to impose new taxes, he has said.

Q What are public employee unions?

A Unions representing government workers, ranging from teachers to clerks to scientists, date from the 1930s as opposed to private-sector unions, which go back to before the 1880s. Though far younger, public employee unions are far larger today, a testament to the growth of government over the years and to the decline of unionization in the private sector as recession and technology have reshaped the manufacturing sector. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate for public-sector workers in 2010 was 36.2 percent, compared with 6.9 percent in the private sector.

Q What are collective bargaining rights?

A Workers organize themselves into unions, which then negotiate with their employers for contracts that cover pay, benefits and work rules. This is true whether it is the private or public sector. In the public sector, the first unions included one founded in 1932 in Wisconsin that enacted the right to bargain collectively in 1959.

Q What is the difference between public and private employees?

A A big difference is the role of government, which theoretically serves as an impartial referee between employers and employees in the private sector. Under existing laws, the government can define roles, protect workers' rights to organize and bargain, monitor representational elections and impose fines for infractions by either side.

Q What happens in the public sector?

A Government is in a special position because it is both referee and employer; it can make laws that favor its management role over teachers, nurses and all government workers. Each state can decide its own laws, but in many states, employees, particularly police and fire, are barred from striking, because the state considers such protection too important to be interrupted.

Q How have public employee unions responded?

A Because they are especially dependent on government, public employee unions have become major league players in the electoral scene. Unions are a mainstay of the Democratic Party, supplying campaign workers and hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign financing to candidates in 2010 alone. Conservatives argue that public employee unions used that electoral power to win lucrative benefits and pensions that ultimately have to be funded by taxpayers. Unions say they are being made scapegoats for government's inability to manage its own financial house and its fear of taxing the rich.

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