Books for the News, Economics, Politics and Current Events

Unions, the public sector, and the struggle for collective bargaining in Wisconsin

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“Our democracy is out of control in Wisconsin,” Mr. Barca said. “And you all know it—you can feel it.”
A quote from this morning’s New York Times, by State Representative and Wisconsin Democrat Peter Barca reveals the escalation of already tense emotions in Madison as the State Assembly prepares to vote on a bill curtailing bargaining rights for many government workers.* Wisconsin has been a site for national and international coverage in past weeks, as tens of thousands of protesters have take to the Wisconsin State Capitol in demonstrations against Republican Scott Walker’s proposed legislation—which would weaken collective bargaining for state employees, requiring those employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover pension costs, and 12.6 percent towards health care premiums.
Recent studies, including one published by the Wall Street Journal, emphasize that growth in state and local government jobs nearly doubles the rate of population growth, and public unions depend on tax revenues to generate pay and benefits. For Wisconsin, a state whose 2003 and 2011 tax cuts may help to generate up to an 800 million dollar reduction in tax revenues by 2013, the situation is dire; this, coupled with Governor Walker’s legislation, which is part of a “budget repair bill,” could affect thousands of workers seeking to organize in their own interests. All of this, despite a particularly rich union history: Wisconsin was the first state in the United States to provide collective bargaining rights to public employees, back in 1959.
Richard B. Freeman and Casey Ichniowski’s When Public Sector Workers Unionize was first published in 1988, when public sector unionism had become one of the most dynamic components of the American labor movement. Contributors to the book focus on the role of labor-management relations in the public sphere, and pay special attention to what the private sector can learn from what was—at the time—the fairly unmitigated success of collective bargaining in the public. The larger arguments of the book acknowledge how public sector unionism affects the economy—stimulating employment, reducing layoff rates, and developing innovative ways to settle labor disputes. Commissioned by the nonprofit, nonpartisan, private National Bureau of Economic Research during the 1980s, the study behind the book offers a new lens through which we might view what’s happening today in Madison: and question what consequences might be foreseen by the bill’s passing.
*The bill passed 53-42 in the state Assembly later this afternoon and will now be put into the hands of Governor Walker, who has promised to sign it.