Monday, February 28, 2011

Wisconsin Workers’ Woes: Fiscally Sound or Unions Aground?

By: Shailee Diwanji

In 1959, Wisconsin was the first state to pass a comprehensive collective bargaining law for public employees and was the birthplace of the national union representing all non-federal public employees. In a dramatic shift, today, Wisconsin's Assembly passed a bill attempting to curb union rights. Protests, both for and against the bill, have been underway across the country for weeks. But the fight is far from over. Wisconsin's Senate is now in the hot seat, as it gears up to tackle this bill. And with the fourteen "missing" Democratic state senators (they can be found in Illinois in an effort to prevent a quorum from voting on the issue), this could prove to be a real challenge.

The bill creates an interesting dichotomy. It purports to reign in fiscal spending and end the budgetary woes (or at least begin to), but many are concerned that it may foreshadow the demise of unions. The bill terminates collective bargaining for most public employees and requires employees to contribute heavily to their pensions and health care. On the other hand, the bill bars unions from forcing employees to pay dues and does not terminate collective bargaining rights for local police, firefighters, and state troopers. Most significantly, the bill has the potential to save up to $300 million over the next two years.

Although the battle appears to be largely political and based on fiscal policy, it implicates the centuries old battle between the rich and the poor. Unions, according to its ardent advocates, allow the American middle class to bargain for increased wages and benefits, better job security, and guaranteed retirement benefits. These may seem like meager demands when pitted against the inflated bonuses doled out on Wall Street. Without a doubt, the passage of this bill could deteriorate the quality of education and other public services in the state. But budgetary problems are looming large. The result of continued fiscal irresponsibility could be unquestionably devastating. One Ohio state senator pointed to Camden, New Jersey saying, "It's an example of where the union refused to renegotiate, and now that city is suffering a 45 percent reduction in the size of its police force because management had no choice."

This bill has elicited passionate responses on both sides of the issue. As neighboring states move to adopt similar legislation, the people are left with a difficult question. Is this sound fiscal policy, or simply a strategy to widen the rift between the economic classes?

-- Shailee Diwanji
   TMA Staff Writer

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