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."

Stern agreed. "I think there's an incredible degree of not just solidarity but appreciation that people are being attacked, and the one way that people who don't have as much power get power is by uniting their strength," he said.

But that may be more than just spin from two union heavyweights. Recent polling found that an overwhelming majority of Americans side with public workers in the battle over bargaining rights.

A New York Times/CBS News poll found that a majority (56 percent) of Americans also opposed cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce state budget deficits.

But that does not necessarily mean that unions are popular (just a third of Americans had a favorable view of unions, according to the poll), only that Americans do not want their rights taken away.

Battles Helping Unions

"Public opinion has been much more favorable to unions and to workers rights -- it just seems like a political attack without a financial purpose," Stern said. "I think that's all been helpful."

Joe McCartin, a history professor at Georgetown University and the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, said what is happening in Wisconsin has "caught almost everyone by surprise.

"Certainly [it] has elicited a reaction unlike any in a generation around the defense of workers' rights, to collectively bargain," said McCartin.

But McCartin said that the labor movement had lost strength compared to a generation ago, a story told in the raw numbers.

According to a January report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership in 2010 was 11.9 percent of the American work force, down from 12.3 percent in 2009. The number of employees belonging to a union declined by 612,000, to 14.7 million.

Nearly 30 years ago, that percentage was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers. In the mid-20th century, 35 percent of the work force was in a union.

But Daniel DiSalvo, a political science professor at City College of New York who studies the U.S. labor movement, said the distinction between public- and private-sector unions is important when looking at the numbers.

While private-sector union membership has declined steadily, public union membership has remained strong. More than one-third of government workers (about 7.6 million of them) belong to a union, compared with 7 percent of private-sector workers (or 7.1 million), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Even with declining membership, the rise and increase in political power of public sector unions has helped stabilize ... the labor movement," DiSalvo said. "The heart and soul right now of the labor movement is public employees."

'People Power' of Unions

DiSalvo and McCartin believe that the political strength of the labor movement has not declined, despite the drop in overall union membership.

"Unions have done better at mobilizing their members and getting them out to vote, and so unions have retained a good deal of political influence even as their membership numbers have gone down," McCartin said.

"Organized labor relies on people power -- its members getting out door to door, talking to each other and other working Americans, working phone banks and turning out the vote. It's the organizational capacity of a Get Out the Vote effort that has been labor's key tool."

DiSalvo drew a further distinction:

"Public employee unions are much more political for reasons that are obvious," he said. "They try to elect their own boss, which is not something that private sector unions could ever dream of," he said. "The United Auto Workers are not selecting the CEO of General Motors."