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Starving Wisconsin's unions

Demonstrators at the Capitol building in Madison are protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation to cut public employees' benefits and eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights.

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Monday, February 21, 2011; 8:00 PM

Let's be clear: The high-stakes standoff in Wisconsin has nothing to do with balancing the state's budget.

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It is about money, though - but only in the sense that money translates into political power. At this point, it's clear for all to see that Gov. Scott Walker's true aim is to bust the public employee unions, thus permanently reshaping the political landscape in the Republican Party's favor.

Democratic state senators who fled the state to forestall Walker's coup have no choice but to remain on the lam. Protesters who support union rights have no choice but to keep their vigil at the capitol in Madison. This is a big deal.

At issue is the attempt by Walker and the Republican majority in the Legislature to strip public workers of their rights to collective bargaining. Under the legislation - which fugitive Democrats have managed to stymie by denying the state Senate a quorum - public employee unions would have no ability to bargain over benefits and pensions. The unions would be able to bargain over salaries but could not secure raises greater than the increase in the cost of living.

Walker is right about one thing: When it comes to pensions and benefits, public workers in Wisconsin have a sweet deal. Most of them put less than 1 percent of their pay into their pensions; Walker's bill would require contributions of at least 5.8 percent. And most pay only about 6 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums, a figure that Walker wants to raise to at least 12.6 percent.

It's easy to see why the average private-sector worker in Wisconsin - probably paying upward of 25 percent toward health insurance costs and struggling to tuck away something, anything, for retirement - might agree with Walker.

It should be noted, however, that those generous deals were not ordained by Divine Providence. They were negotiated, which means that state and local officials agreed to the contract provisions now deemed so excessive. It has long been common for unions to accept better health and pension benefits in lieu of higher salaries - in effect, taking the money later rather than sooner. Now that these IOUs are coming due, Wisconsin wants to renege.

I thought Republicans were supposed to believe that a contract is a contract, sacred and inviolate. Guess not.

But never mind all that. The reality is that workers in many industries are having to choose between givebacks and massive layoffs. Public employees should not be uniquely sheltered from the ill winds buffeting the U.S. economy.

The Wisconsin unions have recognized this fact. Union leaders have announced that they are prepared to accept Walker's proposal on health and pension contributions. In other words, money is no longer an issue.

Walker won, right? He got what he wanted, didn't he?

Actually, no. Bringing health and pension benefits in line with reality was never the point.

Walker and the Republicans are insisting on the provisions in the bill that would deny collective bargaining rights to public workers. The GOP's focus is not on the practical impact of this measure - the unions have acquiesced to Walker's financial terms - but on the political impact.

Unions have been a reliable source of political support for the Democratic Party, including campaign contributions. Over the past few decades, union membership has declined sharply; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers who belong to a union declined from 20.1 percent of the workforce in 1983 to just 11.9 percent in 2010.

In the private sector, just 6.9 percent of workers belong to a union. But among public-sector workers, 36.2 percent are union members - and if you look only at state and local government workers, 42.3 percent are unionized. So if Republicans wanted to weaken the Democratic Party by destroying its most important source of big-money support, they would try to crush public-sector unions at the state and local levels.

That's what the Wisconsin fight is really about. That's why Walker won't settle for budget-balancing concessions. He wants to eliminate the greatest benefit that unions can give their members - collective bargaining - and also, by the way, make it much harder to collect union dues. He wants to starve the unions to death.

This is pure, unadulterated union-busting - not with goons and brickbats, but with the stroke of a scheming governor's pen.

Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.


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