State Laws Target Unions

* By Harry Knowles

Protestors in Madison, Wisconsin
Protestors in Madison, Wisconsin against Governor Walker's anti-union Bill
Actions by the newly elected Republican governors of Ohio and Wisconsin to restrict the collective bargaining rights of government workers have sparked a national debate in the United States over the rights of unions to collectively bargain. The Governors have claimed that public sector workers are either overpaid or have overly generous health and pension benefits, and have seized the opportunity afforded by spiralling state budget deficits to limit union rights.

In early March 2011 the Wisconsin state legislature passed a law introduced by Republican Governor Scott Walker limiting collective bargaining, blocking strikes and curtailed binding arbitration for public employees. Although unions offered concessions they claimed would close the state's budget gap, Walker remained determined to achieve a resolution that he said would limit employee costs. In Ohio, fellow Republican Governor John Kasich is sponsoring a budget bill that attacks union bargaining and membership rights.

It appears that Walker's stand has more to do with limiting union influence that reducing public deficits. A recent poll found that over 40% believed the governors' primary agenda was to weaken the power of public sector unions.

Thousands of demonstrators rallied across the United States in support of government worker unions in Wisconsin. The protests were part of a call to action by the group, as labour, environmentalist, anti-war and other allied organizations mobilized against the assault on workers' rights.

Historically in the US, the majority of union members came from the private sector. This changed last year when public sector union membership overtook private sector membership for the first time. Around 36% of government workers (7.6 million people) are union members compared with about 7% of private sector workers (7.1 million people).

Public and private sector unions face very different collective bargaining conditions in the USA. Bargaining in the private sector is limited by prevailing market conditions. Wage demands by private sector labour are countered by threats to close the business or relocate offshore. Public sector worker demands are limited by government budgets, but many government services are monopolies and are not subject to private sector competitive pressures and market discipline.

In the face of public sector worker demands, politicians have been keen to trade off wage demands by acceding to higher pension and other benefits where the costs 'kick in' much later down the track. A recent study has shown that state and local government workers earn around 4% less in wages than similar private sector workers. However government workers receive better health care and retirement help than workers in the private sector.

Union supporters point to the lower rates of pay in the public sector as evidence that these workers are not making excessive demands. One of the nation's largest public sector unions, the National Education Association, cautioned against blaming government workers for state budget shortfalls which the union said were mainly caused by the recession and the excesses of Wall Street.

So far, public sentiment seems to be firmly in the camp of the government workers. A USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 61% of Americans are opposed to bills that would deprive public sector unions of some of their bargaining rights whilst a Wisconsin poll found 74% oppose removal of these rights.

Sources: New York Times, 28 February 2011; The Washington Post, 27 February; 28 February 2011; Guardian, 11 March 2011.

Published 25 March 2011

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