State of Labor: Wisconsin Showdown Puts Unions Back in National Spotlight

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It's been nearly three weeks since the showdown began between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, and state Democratic lawmakers over a budget bill that would strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights.

Public employees have protested inside and around the state Capitol building in Madison, putting their cause squarely in the national spotlight and raising the profile of the labor movement to a level not been seen in decades.

The Wisconsin teachers' union and state workers unions have agreed to reductions in their benefits but only on the condition that they be allowed to keep their collective bargaining rights.

Walker has dug in his heels, saying the state fiscal situation is so dire that he has no room to negotiate.

Could this very bitter and very public battle give new life to the American labor movement?

The standoff between Republican lawmakers and unions is not unique to Wisconsin. Similar fights are taking place -- or brewing -- in Indiana, Ohio and New Jersey, where governors have made it clear that they are looking to cut the benefits and wages of public sector employees as a solution to their massive budget deficits.

In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie -- in his campaign to reform education and bring the state's massive budget deficit under control -- has made his battle against the state teachers' union one of the signature elements in his stump speech.

In an extensive profile in the New York Times Magazine, reporter Matt Bai said Christie had found "the ideal adversary" in public sector unions.

"Ronald Reagan had his 'welfare queens,' Rudy Giuliani had his criminals and 'squeegee men,' and now Chris Christie has his sprawling and powerful public-sector unions — teachers, cops and firefighters who Christie says are driving up local taxes beyond what the citizenry can afford, while also demanding the kind of lifetime security that most private-sector workers have already lost," Bai wrote.

Given the divide between the two sides, and the battle for public opinion, union activists and labor historians say that the stakes are enormously high.

Ripple Effects From Wisconsin Labor Battle

If the Wisconsin governor and his Republican counterparts can pass this legislation, it could have a ripple effect on similar efforts in Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere.

As these clashes continue, there's a sense that perhaps they could be good for both public- and private-sector unions. Union membership has declined, but these battles have brought unions a level of attention not seen in decades, and they could become the sympathetic party in a bitter debate.

Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, said that in Wisconsin, the showdown over benefits and the budget is not about solutions but rather, "political scapegoating."

President Obama agreed. In February, with the protests in Wisconsin still in their early stages, he called the governor's proposal an "assault on unions.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama said. "And I think it's very important for us to understand that public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends."

Earlier this week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, "We've never seen the incredible solidarity that we're seeing right now."

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