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

By Peter Whoriskey and Amy Gardner
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.

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.

Then-AFL-CIO chief George Meany was quoted in 1962 as saying that it is "impossible to bargain collectively with the government."

Moreover, the harsh working conditions and low pay that provoked union demands at automobile, coal and steel companies were largely absent from most government work. Police and firefighters make up only a fraction of the nation's estimated 20 million government employees.

"Government workers were not exploited," said Henry Farber, a labor economist at Princeton University and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research who has studied public-sector unions. "They were never squeezed the same way as workers in the private sector were, because they had civil-service protections."

Partly as a result, it is estimated that, in the 1950s, less than 15 percent of the state and local workforce was represented by unions.

But between the late 1950s and 1970s, many states passed laws permitting collective bargaining by state and local government employees, and public-sector unions flourished.

It is those same union rights, extended decades ago, that some legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere now are seeking to restrict.

While public- and private-sector unions are often united in politics, they face much different constraints in collective bargaining.

When a union makes demands of a private firm, the workers and the owners can easily see that there is a natural limit on how high compensation can go. If compensation for workers is too high it will force the firm to close - or, more often these days, result in jobs shifting overseas.

Government workers, meanwhile, can demand wages based on how much tax money is available. With many government services standing essentially as monopolies, it is more difficult for customers to shift.

"In my view, the public sector is less naturally suited to collective bargaining, because of the lack of market discipline," Farber said.

Farber and others have also noted that politicians have sometimes proved eager to yield to demands for higher pension and other benefits because the full costs will not be realized until much, much later.

"Public-sector workers are not overpaid in wages, but their benefits are more than people in the private sector receive, and I think that issue is what's being played out right now," Farber said.

Many public-sector unions won compensation increases during the booming 1990s. These days, with the tea party movement and broader anti-tax sentiment, those pay packages have come under attack.

State and local workers earn about 4 percent less in wages than similarly educated workers at private companies, according to a study by John Schmitt at the Center for Economic and Policy Research that echoes other findings. But researchers' conclusions about benefits for government workers, who often receive better health-care and retirement help than their counterparts at private companies, are unclear.

Union supporters assert that lower pay for government workers shows that they are not demanding too much.

"There are constraints on government worker pay, and they are working," said Bill Raabe, director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the National Education Association, one of the nation's largest unions.

Raabe also cautioned against blaming the government workers for state budget shortfalls, which he said were largely caused by a recession precipitated in part by the excesses of Wall Street.

"Our members didn't create this dilemma in the state budgets," Raabe said. "These are people making $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 who are being asked to bear the brunt of serious mistakes made by million- and billionaires."

Public opinion

So far, some recent polls have shown the public leaning in favor of government workers having collective-bargaining rights and maintaining the essence of a union.

A USA Today/Gallup poll found, for example, that 61 percent of Americans are opposed to a bill that would take away some collective-bargaining rights of public unions. And a poll in Wisconsin by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that 74 percent of voters opposed removing state workers' collective-bargaining rights, as long as they agree to cover more for their health care and pensions. Research by the Pew Research Center similarly found virtually no difference in opinions about private- and public-sector unions.

Jake Jones, 36, a firefighter for 13 years at the Columbus firehouse, echoing many of those polled, said last week that giving up concessions is fine but giving up collective bargaining is unacceptable.

"We've already agreed to concessions," he said. "We've actually taken pay freezes and reductions previous to this to keep from getting laid off. But it seems like that's not enough for our current governor and other governors across the country."

whoriskeyp@washpost.com gardnera@washpost.com

Gardner reported from Columbus and Whoriskey from Washington.

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