Ongoing demonstrations against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal that would strip the state’s public employee unions of nearly all their collective bargaining power have rocked that state’s capitol. Public employees from New York to Olympia, Wash., have held similar rallies. Northeastern economics professor Osborne Jackson, whose research focuses on labor economics and public finance, explores this politically charged issue.
Should organized labor see this as a broader attack on unions in general?
That depends on Governor Walker’s motivations. On the surface, there is a growing need to address budgetary imbalances that several states are facing right now, especially as federal stimulus funding dries up. One approach to reducing spending is to try to limit some of the benefits that public employees have. On the other hand, I think the public unions’ view is that this strategy to address the budget unreasonably limits their bargaining rights and compensation, and that alternative plans could be explored. Without being inside Walker’s mind, it’s difficult to know whether reducing the broader influence of labor unions was an underlying goal of the proposal, or merely a potential byproduct.
What power does labor have to force the Wisconsin governor to back down?
I think what they’re doing now, striking, is definitely one strategy they can utilize. Public unions in particular represent workers — like teachers, police and firefighters — who provide essential services. Because there aren’t as many substitutes for their services as in the private sector, they tend to have a fair amount of bargaining power. Striking is both a reflection and utilization of that power. Whether that strategy works, however, is unclear. It may depend in part on the degree of public support for the unions, which seems to still be mixed. While some taxpayers are strongly in favor of the union stance, others question the health insurance, pensions and employment protections that public workers have, especially in light of current labor market difficulties.
What do you think will happen?
At the end of the day, I think a lot of the discourse is fairly politically charged. Public unions have influence in political legislation and campaigns, which may factor into opinions on this issue. At the same time, given the underlying budget constraints, one can argue for legitimate aspects of the proposal. The reality is that there might be a bit of both motivations at work. Either way, changes to public sector employee benefits seem likely to result from all of this. To what extent, however, remains to be seen.