Region is Epicenter for Fight Over Union Power

The Midwest is the birthplace of the modern industrial union. The United Auto Workers formed in Detroit. AFSCME, the union representing many government workers, got its start in Madison, Wisconsin. Now, Madison and other Midwest cities have become the center of the fight over public employee unions. Big protests are planned Tuesday in state capitals.

Lisa Schmelz, teacher (Photo: Chip Mitchell)

In both Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican-led legislatures are pushing bills that would strip unions of much of their negotiating power. Wisconsin teacher Lisa Schmelz told a crowd Sunday that this is not about public workers taking concessions. They’ve already agreed to the eight percent cut in pay and benefits. “I have paid for health insurance in a previous occupation, and I’m willing to pay for it again,” she said. “But I’m not willing to give up collective bargaining!”



Republican Governor Scott Walker’s plan would strip most public employees of collective bargaining on everything but pay. That means when it comes to health benefits or work conditions or anything else up for discussion, power would shift from unions to management. A majority of workers would also have to re-authorize the union every year and it would be harder for unions to collect dues. That’s what the protesters consider union-busting.

A Wisconsin protester Sunday (photo: Chip Mitchell)

Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich is pushing a similar bill that would kill collective bargaining for all state employees, and limit it for local workers. Rob Scott of the Dayton Tea Party said it’s about fairness.

“There’s some public sector jobs, they only pay ten percent of their healthcare. In the private sector, there are some people paying 40%, 50%. We’re just asking for a little bit of give,” Scott said.

That resentment of public sector benefits is one reason leaders have more political capital to try to weaken unions.

Gary Chaison is a labor relations professor at Clark University. He says resentment has turned a taxpayer revolt into an anti-union revolt in the Midwest.

“Public sector workers didn’t have to worry about their operations being closed, seemed to have guaranteed jobs, and also were exerting political influence in the election process, and as a result, elected officials beholden to them,” he said.

And, there’s another factor. Union membership in this country is dwindling.

People came from all sides to Wisconsin Sunday. (photo: Chip Mitchell)

Nationally, 36 percent of public employees are union members. That’s far more than in the private sector where under seven percent are in a union. But those percentages vary wildly at the state level. Our region is a public union stronghold. According to Professor Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University, nearly half the public sector workers in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio are organized. Compare that to a state like North Carolina where it’s under 10 percent.

Research economist Donald Grimes of the University of Michigan found some surprising data to fuel the debate. He looked at average compensation for private and public workers from 2000 to 2009 and found that, yes, government salaries rose 10% more than those of private workers.

“But it’s not particularly pronounced for Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Indiana, at least in terms of Great Lakes states,” Grimes said. “Their wages and benefits have not gone up that much.”

So, the states that are ground zero for this battle over unions and compensation… buck the national trend. Private sector salaries actually rose more in Wisconsin than government pay. In Ohio, there wasn’t much difference between public and private compensation over that period. One caveat, these numbers may not include public sector promises like pensions that have been kicked down the road. And, states that added government workers can skew the numbers.

But for now, this fight has reunited a fractured labor movement. The Teamsters and the AFL-CIO are talking again after parting ways in 2005. But this unified front is in a battle for survival. If Wisconsin, Ohio, or any state passes limits on collective bargaining, anti-union legislation could sweep the nation. And, that could forever change Midwest power and politics.

3 Replies to “Region is Epicenter for Fight Over Union Power”

  1. I hopped over here thanks to the NewsHour RT, and I’m glad I did. This story really helped me understand what’s at stake in a way that I haven’t been able to get from the national news sources. I look forward to following Changing Gears reporting as the story evolves over the next few days, weeks, etc.

    One thing that confuses me about the story in Madison is how the right for union to engage in collective bargaining is entangled with a vote on the state budget. Is that an attempt to slip this change in under the radar? Would we expect other governors, like Governor John Kasich in Ohio, to do the same thing?

  2. What many people don’t realize including those who’ve been damaging our beautiful capitol buiilding (& from out of state at that who won’t be paying to repair the damage) in Madison is that Wi. cared about the rights & protections for state workers long before unions came around in the Civil Service Act of 1905, sponsored ironically by the grandfather of deserter Sen. Risser, updated in 2005 which already put forth many of their rights & protections NOT the work of “colletive bargaining’ which by the way is a privilege, NOT A RIGHT….. READ IT…As a state employee from 69 thru 71 , when some went on strike I was appalled.What ran thru my mind was,”what’s wrong with you people? Look at your benefits and just where do you think the money comes from?” I was actually confident in crossing the picket line because it was an affirmation of how selfish I felt they were. And to borrow a phrase of Obama’s………..were they thinking of the majority of the people in Wisconsin who were non-unionand especially now and ‘who were their friends and neighbors”? This isn’t like Cairo as someone said but of the same mentality as was displayed in the riots in Greece or doen’t anyone pay attention to what’s going on in the rest of the world or is it just more of the common U.S. “me, me, me” mentality by the protesters and their supporters Oh, and by the way do some “in-depth” research and find out what kinds of organizations the unions would rather you didn’t find out about that they’re in bed with………………..

  3. The union was needed in the earlier part of the 20th century. As they started taking hold they overstepped their usefulness by thuggery and killing and generally scaring people into line. Now they are trying to do it again in WI and OH. They are just wanting to much. They need to be stopped.

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