Union Busting In Wisconsin

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

On the off chance you’ve been fully occupied studying the protests and revolts in the Middle East and have not been paying close attention to what’s happening closer to home, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is attempting to eliminate almost all public employees’ collective bargaining rights, as well as slash their health care and pension benefits. In response, the state employees’ union has offered concessions on benefits but not on collective bargaining, an offer the governor has emphatically refused. The state assembly passed Walker’s version of the bill last Friday, sending it to the overwhelmingly Republican state senate. The senate, however, is unable to act, as all Democratic state senators have left Wisconsin in protest, leaving the senate without the necessary quorum to conduct business. Governor Walker, in response to the Democratic defection, is now threatening massive layoffs of state workers.

And you thought Town Meeting could be contentious.

The tale of labor unions is long and complex, and the concessions they have wrung from management, whether of private industry or public service, are many, including an eight-hour work day, a five-day work week, wage increases, and increased safety measures for both workers and consumers. These concessions were not just handed over by management, but won through great cost in human capital; the history of the labor movement, not just in this country, but throughout the world, is littered with gross injustices and written in blood. Anti-union forces have employed a variety of tactics to discourage organizing, including evictions from company housing, blacklisting workers, and frequently resorting to outright violence and mortal harm to striking laborers.

The greatest of the concessions won over time by the labor movement is collective bargaining, where the employer strikes a contract with a group of workers, as opposed to contracting with each worker individually. Collective bargaining agreements cover not only wages and benefits, but also working hours, overtime issues, working conditions, and grievance procedures. They protect the employees from unfair management practice, and help to create a level playing field for all workers.

Labor unions have been a boon to all workers, whether employed in a union shop not, but they are not universally popular; among business leaders, they are viewed as a pox that unnecessarily complicates making money, reduces profits, and makes it difficult to fire employees whose performance is below expectations. Unions themselves are large and unwieldy, and rules and regulations concerning all aspects of employment are often so rigidly structured and enforced that the good of individual workers is sacrificed on the altar of the collective group.

The concept of collective bargaining is even more divisive. When labor agreements cannot be reached by the end of the current contract, and negotiations break down altogether, workers may strike, or management may lock them out of the workplace. This is bad for management, and bad for labor; productivity is reduced to zero, profits become losses, and unemployment rises. The most visible of these conflicts occur when sports leagues shut down (the major league baseball strike in 1994-95, or a potential NFL strike or lockout beginning this weekend) or when actors and/or writers decide to walk a picket line. And in these cases, our sympathy may be stretched thin as we watch the less-than-needy march holding placards.

The reality for the majority of unionized workers is bleaker. For most, membership in the union has meant entry into the middle class, greater job security, and better lives for themselves and their families. The wage and benefit disparity between union and non-union shops can be tremendous; clearly, this is the case in Wisconsin, which is suffering from a large gap between anticipated tax revenues and proposed expenditures. If it were willing to bargain, Wisconsin taxpayers could gain significant concessions from the workers without destroying the union, but Governor Walker’s position is unequivocal: the only good union is a dead union.

It is uncertain what the outcome in Wisconsin will be, or whether events there will significantly impact those in other states. Already, the governors of New Jersey, Ohio and Indiana have joined the anti-union conga line, publicly stating their support for Governor Walker’s position. What is apparent is that, even if Wisconsin’s Republican governor and legislature are ultimately unsuccessful in stripping away the collective bargaining ability of the state employees’ union, workers will still be required to make serious concessions on wages and benefits. The scarcity of funds in Wisconsin’s coffers, and those of almost every other state in the current economy, demands serious belt-tightening and/or layoffs.

There are many who claim that the days of unions are over, that workers no longer need the protection that they provide, and that their existence only adds to the complexity and cost of doing business. But those who ignore the bloody history of the labor movement may find themselves doomed to repeat it; the existence of unions continues to provide workers with important safeguards that extend far beyond the setting of compensation rates. Their loss could potentially catapult the American workplace back to an early 20th century model, leaving workers utterly at the mercy of their employers.