By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
By now, most Americans are aware that state workers in Wisconsin and other states are protesting and striking to keep the right to collectively bargain with their public (state or localities) employers. Unions have taken a beating in the last three decades, and the rate of unionization of private sector workers is at its lowest point in decades: 6.9 percent. That’s actually lower than the 12 percent rate of unionization that existed in the United States before the Wagner Act of 1935 passed, giving workers the right to organize. The percent of public workers in unions is 36.2 percent, certainly far higher than their private counterparts.
The newly-elected Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has cleverly tried to shift the focus on state workers as the cause of his state’s budget deficits and wants state employees to give up their right to collective bargaining. The state workers in Wisconsin have already agreed to many of his demands for concessions on salary and health care. But Walker’s not satisfied. He wants them to give up collective bargaining too.
Here’s the problem: employers – even public employers like states and localities – need someone on the other side of the bargaining table representing the interests of workers. Worker issues include, of course, pay but they extend way beyond salaries to health care benefits, pensions, sick and vacation leave, and occupational health and safety. A union can bring together the interests of all the workers, talk to employers about what are their most pressing matters, and negotiate on their behalf. The striking workers in Wisconsin don’t want to give up that bargaining right, and they shouldn’t have to. Furthermore, public workers, it turns out, don’t do so much better than private sector workers and, in some cases, given their skill level, are actually undercompensated. These state workers are not getting rich; they are simply earning a decent, middle class income.
Shouldn’t we want a middle class that enjoys livable wages, decent benefits, and vacation and sick leave? A middle class that has money to spend on the basics, but also on leisure activities like taking the kids to Disneyland or to a National Park?
My favorite take on this current stand-off is in Monday’s Washington Post. Cartoonist Tom Toles has a plane in the air labeled “US Government” and a bubble from the cockpit that says “Until we solve the problem of people taking extra peanuts, we have no choice but to shut down the engines…” That says it all: these government workers are asking for respect and fair treatment; they are not demanding huge benefit increases. Quite the contrary.
This is union busting, pure and simple. EJ Dionne, in a recent Washington Post column, says that Scott Walker’s agenda is more about power than budgets. Walker, it turns out, is pushing to end same-day registration for voting and trying to pass onerous voter ID laws that would especially burden those with lower incomes.
NCL supports the workers in states across the country who are standing up to the bullies in Governor’s offices trying to break the union. This is a turning point for unions that we’ll be watching carefully as the protests continue.