Wisconsin: “Taking Away Public Employees’ Bargaining Rights Is Crazy”
Public employees and labor activists in Wisconsin continue to demonstrate against Republican Governor Scott Walker's plan to curb spending by cutting out collective bargaining rights for many state workers. The plan would also require them to pay more for their pensions and health care.
Chris Tilly, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, weighs in on the situation in Wisconsin and the impact it may have on labor politics in the near future.
Benjamin Gottlieb: What are the implications of the union protests in Wisconsin?
Chris Tilly: In Wisconsin, there is a proposal to wipe out collective bargaining rights for public employees. So, this has a number of significant implications. For pubic employees, there’s the possibility that conditions of employment could be under attack. Also, public services as a whole are being threatened. If you start slashing pay benefits and pensions, it’s going to have a negative effect on public services. Look, it’s hard enough retain good teachers, yet in Wisconsin, we’re threatening to cut their benefits and remove their bargaining rights.
BG: Will this have a broader impact in the U.S.?
CT: For the broader economy, it’s kind of a negative stimulus. Essentially, the Republicans and the right wing want to cut pay, jobs and benefits with regard to public employees. We have to be mindful of the 1930s economy, when the federal government increased spending to stimulate the economy while state governments were facing budget problems. To deal with their budget problems, states were forced to slash programs and spending. The two essentially cancelled each other out and there was no net stimulus. There is a real chance of that happening.
BG: Aren’t some these public employees overpaid and working jobs that are no longer relevant?
CT: I think there is public opinion that there is waste, fraud and abuse with some of these jobs. There are also widespread beliefs that many public employees aren’t working that hard. Studies show, however, that pubic employees on the whole get paid less. On the other hand, pubic employees tend to have better benefit packages. The tradeoff here is that they are taking lower pay for better benefits, including some of the best pension plans in the country. I think it makes a lot more sense to support all our population in retirement, instead of tearing down people who have a good deal in retirement.
BG: Boiling it down, what is at stake for Wisconsin’s public employees?
CT: Collective bargaining rights. Even if you think they are overpaid, to say that these employees should have no voice in their workplace – to take away collective bargaining rights – it just seems crazy to me. We’re talking about a basic human right here. There are other ways to limit some of the privileges for public employees, such as the ability to strike for example. A good example is that for police and protective services, there are limits to the rights to strike. But to remove collective bargaining is to remove one’s voice, and we can’t do that.
BG: Are these public employees in Wisconsin looking out for themselves, or speaking for a larger agenda?
CT: I think both. They want to be seen and advocate for the quality of public service jobs: education, healthcare and public safety.
BG: What about for California? Can you see a similar situation emerging in the near future?
CT: Right now, we have a Democrat as governor and a democratic majority in the legislator. So no, I don’t see this immediately spreading to California. What you are seeing is two political movements squaring off. Similar to how Prop 13 caught [Gov.] Jerry Brown by surprise, its certainly possible that an anti-government workers movement could come to California and push California politicians who are sympathetic to adopt certain types of restrictions. I don’t think we can predict to what extend each movement will spread across the county.
The UCLA Labor Center offers innovative programs that offer a range of educational, research and public service activities within the university and in the broader community. For over forty years, the center has especially focused on low-wage and immigrant workers.
[[Editor's Note: This is not the full interview transcription. Some questions and answers were omitted.]]
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