Wisconsin and the rights of workers

For decades the two political parties have engaged in parallel social contracts with workers and management: Come election time, unions support Democrats and the people who unions work for support Republicans. Legislatively, the two parties advocate the agendas of their respective constituencies. Since the 1980s, the Republican-management axis has been in the ascendancy.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, the percentage of American wage and salary workers belonging to unions was 11.9%. In 1983, that number was 20.1%. The actual steepness in the decline of union membership is masked by the rise in public sector unions. In 2010, 36% of all public sector employees were members of unions while only 7% of employees in the private sector were. In fact, there are more government employees (7.6 million) in unions than there are private sector workers (7.1 million).

The Republican-management coalition has turned its full attention to doing the same to public sector unions as it’s done to those in the private sector. The Lexington & Concord of this campaign is Madison, Wisconsin where newly elected Governor Scott Walker, backed by Republican super majorities in both houses of the legislature are about to enact legislation that will essentially end the right of public employees to collectively bargain. Governor Walker proclaims that the issue is not unions, but balancing the state’s budget, but that’s a sham. Why else would he exempt public safety unions (which all endorsed him in the recent election) from these cuts? And what does requiring all other public unions to hold an annual vote of members as to the union’s continued existence, as the governor proposes, have to do with budget problems?

If state and local workers in Wisconsin are paying little towards their pensions and health insurance, that should change. Government employees should pay a reasonable amount for reasonable benefits, but the constant refrain that “it’s not like this in the private sector” is not the yardstick that we want to use. The rights and benefits of workers in the private sector have been devastated by management as part of the ongoing transference of wealth from the middle class to the most affluent in our society.

In the late 1970s, the richest 1% of Americans took in 9% of the nation’s total income; in 2007, that same 1% took in 23.5% of total income. That increase wasn’t the result of “new” money – it came from somebody else and that somebody else was the American middle class whose wages have been stagnant for a decade and whose benefits, in the form of decent health insurance and pensions, have been stripped away, all in the cause of greater wealth for the few. If private sector employees were treated more like public sector employees, our country and our economy would be a lot better off.

In some ways, however, public sector employees have become victims of their own success. Many are among the most reliable of Republican voters, embracing the “less taxes/smaller government” mantra, seemingly oblivious to the fact that those taxes pay the salaries and benefits they receive. If you doubt that, go back to the archives and find any story written in the past two years about a Tea Party rally – such stories inevitably include at least one interview with an enthusiastic Tea Partier who happens to be a present or former (and now collecting a pension) government employee.

As for the eventual outcome of this struggle that’s been touched off in Madison, I hope the unions win and I hope that victory will be the start of a counter-revolution in this decades-long attack on the American middle class. But unless public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere recalibrate their position and think of the big picture when concessions are needed to balance budgets, that’s not going to happen.

17 Responses to Wisconsin and the rights of workers

  1. C R Krieger says:


    I always thought of Unions as “working class” activities.  When my Father was helping organize a steel mill in Johnstown, PA, he was “working class” (group photo in the NYT, page 3).  Then he snuck into management through a side door—Safety Inspector and then Safety Engineer.  I have heard there are unions for engineers out on the Coast, but I haven’t seen anything like that here.  As the nature of our economy shifts should we be looking for software engineers to become unionized?  Systems analysts?  Auditors?

    Is there some history here for us to study?  I don’t know much about Commonwealth of Massachusetts history, but wasn’t there some fracas like this down in Boston about 100 years ago?

    And, ah, …, ah, are you running for higher office?

    Regards  —  Cliff

  2. DickH says:

    Cliff, given the controversial nature of this topic, I would think that my writing about it would be an indicator of a complete lack of plans to run for higher office. Those with such aspirations are far more circumspect in their public pronouncements.

    I probably use the term “union” to represent protecting the rights of workers more than a formal organization. Similarly, “management” doesn’t refer to the shift leader at McDonalds but, as I put it, “the people for whom the workers work.” With those as definitions, any time you pit workers versus management in a one-on-one struggle, the workers lose. To think otherwise ignores the disparity of power in such a relationship.

    For a century – from the 1880s until the time of Ronald Reagan, workers sought with some success to balance that unequal relationship by organizing. By the same token, from the time of Teddy Roosevelt, government has served as a third party in the worker-management relationship, balancing the playing field between the two. That worked pretty well for one hundred years, but over the last thirty we’ve seen much retrenchment so that today we’re on a trajectory to return us to a time in which workers were just another commodity to be used and tossed away. That’s not good for the workers and it’s not good for the country.

  3. JoeS says:

    The data on the difference between union membership in the public and private sectors are interesting. Could it be that when revenue is not a competitive issue, it is easier for management to be more generous to the workers? If so, there would be less pressure in co-existing with a unionized labor force.

    One of the central issues to all the labor-management disputes is who pays for health care. Just think how much easier it would be if that were to be removed from the equation.

  4. K-R-S says:

    Great post Dick. Here is the link to a WSJ article from earlier this week on a similar issue.

    I’ve had similar discussions with my spouse and other family members….So, what NOT to talk about at the dinner table “Guns, God, Gays & Unions”. :0)
    “Cuts are OK as long it effects someone else and not oneself, spouse, child, etc…”

    I recall one discussion with my Dad where he decried the pension and insurance benefits of public unions. HOWEVER, was vehemently opposed to an increase in he & his wife’s medical insurance through the City of Boston (she is a BPS teacher).

  5. sarahc says:

    I have a full time job in the real estate industry and a homebased business that the website is about. I think the issue isn’t so much union & non union but rather I think people need to think more in terms of doing something entrepreneurial at least part time. In the recession my employer cut my income by 15% (they took my telecommuting away) without the visual arts business I’d be sunk as this kind of thing gives you an income that no employer can tinker with.
    I think of unions as primarily working class too. As far as I know in the Boston area the only unionized places are construction, baggage handlers at the airport & people who work for the city or the state.
    We may be headed back to when prudent people saved 1/3 of their income for their retirement.

  6. THUNDER26 says:

    Unions have outlived their usefulness of ensuring a fair wage. Now, they are just another Special Interest Group bent on furthering their agenda.if you took 3 days off, shutting down your company to go protest, on TV at the State Capitol-you would be joining the ranks of the unemployed.Why use our Tax $ to fund a better Retirement Plan that we get?

  7. PaulM says:

    Labor unions, federal meat inspectors, clean water laws, public schools—all these are the result of collective action taken by people to improve situations that were degrading the quality of social and individual health. The “market” on its own does not address all concerns. Unions emerged for a reason. Unfortunately, labor history is not a major topic in educational programs offered to most students.

  8. Renee Aste says:

    The protests themselves are becoming very unfocused. Unions have a purpose, but it’s beginning to look like a circus over there.

    We do live in a democracy, the people did vote in this governor and legislature. That has to be respected also. If the public unions are unhappy, there’s 2012 for state elections and 2014 for Governor to get elected officials that will honor their wants in negotiations. If they feel what the legislature has passed is somehow unconstitutional, well there’s recourse should be in the courts.

  9. C R Krieger says:

    Do we make a distinction between workers and public servants?  Should we?  This is not the Netherlands and folks in the military are not allowed to have a union.  Should US soldiers have a union; be able to go on strike?

    Times change and FDR’s view that there should not be public service unions may be outdated.  On the other hand, a steel mill on strike is different from your local fire fighters being on strike.  On the other hand, France has periodic massive transportation strikes (nationalized railroads) and seems to survive.  Then there was May of 68 and all of that, when the students went on strike  The 68ers are still with us and a topic of conversation in places, including the Continuing Ed course my wife and I are now taking.

    Notwithstanding, the French Government was able to jack up retirement ages toward our pegs, albeit with massive strikes late last fall.  On the other hand, you may not like how things operate in France.  The issue of their general understanding of individual freedom is a topic best left for another time, although I would note that this is the Fifth Republic we are talking about.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  10. Jack Mitchell says:

    Municipal unions are, in part, a guard against political patronage. Imagine the staff down at City Hall turning over on a continual basis.

    Look, I get that patronage and cronyism still exists. You see it every day when you talk to the brother, sister, cousin, donor, “good guy”, ect of an elected or admin higher up. But these folks are fixtures in the system. They aren’t gone when the next “sheriff” rides into town.

    That is both good and bad, but mostly good, imo. These folks, regardless of how they got the job, learn to do the job. How well they do it varies by individual and the management they work for.

    We all see that in Washington DC, civil service ensures that professional people stay in place regardless of who POTUS is or any of the cabinet members are, ect. The important work of government is not left to twist in electoral winds, by and large.

    The unions, in part, protect these workers from being run out of the workplace. Unfortunately, as human nature tends to do, priviledges are now excepted as standard. And, “respect” is measured by “how much.”

    I’m very pro-union. But I’m somewhat fed up with certain things. Like not using flaggers on construction sites. And, not having teachers meet with parents 2-3 times a year, at night. Or, out of whack collective bargains.

    We hear, everyday, about the abuses of tenure and seniority. Hell, it’s our family and friends frickin BRAGGING about it. Or, we know first hand when we are victim to it.

    Something has got to give. But if you are proposing “busting” the unions, then count me out.

  11. Joan H says:

    As a former union “official” I am very pro-union. BUT on the other hand – they need to pay a fair share towards their retirement and insurance. Has anyone seen any statistics that state how much they are paying out now for retirement and medical? About the time I retired Lowell workers were paying 25 % of the insurance and close to 8 % ( forget the exact number) into retirement.
    And as Jack Mitchell stated – unions protect workers from unfair (Ie political) hiring practices. Without that – there is the potential for firings every time the City Council or City Manager changes. (Or other local politicos – for that matter).

  12. C R Krieger says:

    I guess my understanding of “Civil Service” is strictly at the Federal Level, where the idea that folks would be fired from Government jobs when those in power turned over was out of the question.  Civil Service WAS protection from that sort of thing (and a lot of other things). It was instituted under the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which came about due to the assassination of President James Garfield by Charles Julius Guiteau a disgruntled office seeker.

    Do we not have a true “Civil Service” system in our Fair Commonwealth?

    Regards  —  Cliff

  13. Hugh Fitzpatrick says:


    Interesting post. I have been reading about this situation since the story first came out. I must admit that I did not know that police, fire, etc were not a part of this proposed legislation. Interestingly enough, I don’t know enough about unions to publicly comment about this situation. I can say, however, that running my own business, I make a substantial contribution to my employees health care cost. Also, on the issue of pensions, my organization does not have one at this point in time due to enrollment participation rules and funding. It becomes extremely expensive

  14. C R Krieger says:

    Looking at Hugh Fitzpatrick’s comment from yesterday, I think there was meme out there that Police and Fire were exempted for being backs of Gov Walker’s campaign.  Turns out that such is not the case—they were exempted, but they didn’t support the campaign, per this link.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  15. DickH says:

    Cliff, perhaps the governor did not receive the endorsement of every public safety union in Wisconsin, but that whacko right wing website you point to as evidence of that is pretty shaky. The fact is, he has exempted public safety unions from this union-busting legislation without any rational explanation of why that’s the case

  16. Martin Lorrey says:

    In all the hoopla over the benefits and the price paid for them by union members I have’nt seen one article which states how they were recieved. Wages and benefits are part of collective bargarning,and I have not read one article on the history of the subject as what was given up to get them. I don’t believe any state would just sit at the bargarning table and allow the process to be one sided. Until I see an article on the background of the bargarning agreements,a full disclousure of what has been negoitated then I have to believe the governor is being selective with his arguments and is trying to use a few benefits to break the unions

  17. Renee Aste says:

    Cliff, You know you’ve been blogging enough to try to find a atleast a more mainstream reference, even if initially found on a non-neutral site.

    Dick, I mentioned on Cliff’s blog that my mother was union at Saint Joseph’s. When the merger happened in the early 90s, the non-union were first to go yet, also seemingly the first to be picked up at Saint Johns. Sure my mother was one of the last, but she is very keenly aware that there was no way she would be taken on at Saint John being within a union. Her nursing union dissolved eventually.

    Even if Wisconsin’s Governor is wrong, would it be right for many to feel a sense of resentment toward how unions function lately and it has manifested with many in support of the state government actions? As the number of union members dwindle, union leadership holds more political power/influence then ever. Are unions really doing their duty, when so many middle class/working class citizens could who actually benefit are being repelled by their actions.

    Historically and even today I understand the concept of unions, and what they protect. Unions do have a perception problem, of caring more about the union then workers’ interests.