A vote more, perhaps, against public-sector unions than unions overall

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker earned 53 percent of the vote to beat back a recall effort that began in February 2011. His victory highlights challenges for Democrats. A1. RICK WOOD / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / MCT
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker earned 53 percent of the vote to beat back a recall effort that began in February 2011. His victory highlights challenges for Democrats. A1. RICK WOOD / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / MCT
Posted: June 08, 2012

If only, labor leaders say, Tuesday's vote in Wisconsin turned simply on the issue of collective bargaining, as it did in Ohio in November, maybe the result would have been different.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker earned 53 percent of the vote to beat back a recall effort that began in February 2011, when he eliminated most collective-bargaining rights for most public employees.

"I wish it was about collective bargaining," AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka said in a news conference Wednesday. "It was about everything but that."

What started as a fight over collective bargaining turned into an all-out, heavily financed debate on taxes, spending, the size of Wisconsin's government, the election muscle of unions, campaign contributions, even the validity of the idea of a recall vote.

In Ohio last fall, the issue was much narrower, expressed as a ballot measure on one idea. Voters there overwhelmingly, 61 percent to 39 percent, upheld collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions.

Lonnie Golden, a professor at Pennsylvania State University-Abington who teaches about labor unions, said the Walker forces were able to tap into public sentiment, perhaps even public envy, against unions that represent government workers.

"They have more leverage and membership to get the kinds of things workers would like to get on their jobs," Golden said.

Backlash against public-employee unions was evident in San Jose and San Diego on Tuesday, when voters overwhelming approved measures to curtail pensions for city workers.

In the Neshaminy School District, a bitter four-year contract impasse with the teachers' union has angered the traditionally pro-union lower Bucks County community.

Even though Anne Schmidt, vice president of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers, said the only antiunion sentiment she had seen was at the bargaining table, the union also advised teachers to stay away from Tuesday's school board meeting to avoid harassment and trouble.

"Neshaminy is unique," school board President Ritchie Webb said. "It has a militant union that has, from its actions, produced a reaction that is not as much antiunion as anti-NFT."

The community's attitude has changed over the four years, he said, "but I don't know it's to unions as a whole."

"There's a difference between private versus public" operations, Webb said. "As a small businessman, if I charge too much, I go out of business. Or customers can shop at other businesses."

But states and municipalities and school districts have to negotiate with the unions that represent their employees.

That has been the strength of public-sector unionism, Golden said, but it is also contributing to some ill will.

Public-sector unions "are victims of their own success," he said. They've been able to hang on to pensions, stave off massive cuts in health benefits, and even wangle a few percentage points in raises, all in a tough economy, and even as others are losing ground financially.

That, Golden said, is because unions have enough density in the public workforce to retain clout, and because their employers can't readily ship their jobs overseas — an option for private-sector companies displeased with their labor negotiations.

Whether Walker's victory sends a message that will embolden public officials or cow union negotiators at the bargaining table remains to be seen.

Philadelphia's negotiations with its public-sector employees have been stalled, with workers still paid under the terms of contracts negotiated in more generous times.

In Pennsylvania on Sunday, unionized state liquor-store employees ratified a contract that they say will protect them even if the stores are privatized.

And in New Jersey on Tuesday, members of the union that represents most state employees, the Communication Workers of America, ratified a new contract.

But for that contract, negotiations were different. A year ago, thousands of union workers marched on Trenton after Gov. Christie pushed through legislation to eliminate the ability of the CWA to negotiate health benefits.

"I think that the politics that drive Walker are the same politics that are in operation in New Jersey," said Hetty Rosenstein, who heads the CWA in New Jersey.

"So, in a sense," she said, "there is that connection. In another sense, I don't see a connection. We engaged in collective bargaining. It was a very tough contract, but we did it. Walker is seeking to destroy collective bargaining."

Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her "Jobbing" blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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