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Ohio, Wisconsin shine spotlight on new union battle: Government workers vs. taxpayers

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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Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 28, 2011; 12:10 AM

COLUMBUS, OHIO - Across Ohio last week, the legislative push to restrict the union rights of government workers was greeted again and again by noisy protests.

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But in this state dotted with manufacturing plants and their locals, this may have been more striking: At least some elected officials normally sympathetic to industrial unions were questioning whether they should side with government workers.

"I believe in what unions do, but as an elected official I represent the taxpayers," said Jeff Berding, a registered Democrat on the Cincinnati City Council who ran as an independent after he opposed the party on a union issue. "I'm trying to get the best deal for them."

The divide between government worker unions and their opponents, playing out now in several state capitals, highlights a critical aspect of the evolving labor movement.

Throughout U.S. history, the most prominent union clashes largely involved employees squaring off against big corporate owners over how to share profits. The recent state budget controversies feature union members bargaining against state and local governments over wages and benefits provided by taxpayers.

The shift reflects the profound changes in American unionism. Last year, for the first time in American history, a majority of union members worked for the government rather than private firms. About 36 percent of government workers, or 7.6 million people, are members of unions, compared with about 7 percent of private-sector workers, or 7.1 million people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And with that evolution comes different tactics and politics.

"These people are bargaining against the American taxpayer," said Ned Ryun, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and the president of American Majority, a grass-roots political training organization that also has helped coordinate anti-tax rallies. "I'm not sure they can win the PR battle. People are saying, 'You're kidding me. They're making that much and I'm paying for it?' "

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was in Columbus this week for protests. She said in an interview that the argument that public unions are fighting the taxpayer is misguided.

"You have long-standing history in Ohio of using collective bargaining to do transformative things in education," she said.

Public vs. private

While government unions and their private-sector counterparts are lumped together under the labor movement umbrella, they are in some ways starkly different, emerging according to different laws and bargaining under different constraints.

While the National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, allowed employees to form unions and collectively bargain in much of the private sector, it was not immediately clear to what extent government workers should be protected by unions.


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