What Does the Future Hold for U.S. Labor?

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Protesters rally outside the Wisconsin State Capitol on February 21, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Steven Greenhouse, New York Times labor and workplace correspondent and author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, discussed what Wisconsin tells us about public vs. private unions and the future of collective bargaining.

The budget battle in Wisconsin is putting public employee unions under the spotlight and protestors are still in Madison shouting their disagreements. "This is what democracy looks like," they say. But the other side says the budget proposal is what democracy looks like.

Steven Greenhouse lays it out:

It's very interesting here because both sides are saying they're democratic...and that the other side's being undemocratic and dictatorial. Now Gov. Walker, Republican, says he was elected, he got a majority of the votes, Republicans captured both houses of the legislature and they say we have the right to largely eliminate collective bargaining rights, that's the majority rule. The union leaders say collective bargaining is a fundamental right...and the slight majority should not strip them of their rights.

Collective bargaining is something private sector workers have enjoyed since 1935 when the National Labor Relations Act was passed by Congress. Not until 1959 did Wisconsin become the first state in the U.S. to give its public sector workers the right to collectively bargain and unionize as well. So, Wisconsin is a traditionally union-friendly state now facing the loss of some of their most precious tools.

Greenhouse said there's a agreement that the fiscal crisis set the stage for this standoff. But that's where the consensus ends. 

A lot of Democrats, a lot of union people, a lot of economists say, the real problem here is a lack of revenues flowing into state coffers. And what has caused that lack of revenues?  The great recession, which hit incomes of many taxpayers, and they say Wall Street excesses caused the recession and that's hurt the states very much and now the unions and Democrats say the public employee unions are being blamed and targeted and demonized for these state budget crisis. The Republicans say, look we have these large fiscal crises, these large deficits, they argue, exorbitant public employee pensions, generous health coverage and we just can't afford it anymore. Let's forget about what caused this, we have these problems, we have to reduce our costs to eliminate our deficits.

Gov. Scott Walker has been accused of using his budget proposal to bust unions, but Greenhouse said the governor isn't doing anything against private unions. Other states around the country are making moves against them.

In Ohio and many other states, Republicans who are not enamored with unions are taking actions to weaken private sector unions. They're pushing bills called 'right to work' bills that would allow union members not to contribute anything in terms of union dues or contributing to the union.

These kinds of laws are common in southern and southwestern states where unions are weak, but not in northeastern, midwestern or western states where unions have been traditionally strong. Greenhouse said this could be shifting.

Some people say that if Gov. Walker gets his legislation through, that would weaken public sector unions, it's inevitable that the Republicans will also take some steps to weaken private sector unions.

One caller, Sheldon from Forest Hills, agreed. 

If we lose these rights in one state, it's going to be in all the states. It's just like that classic song, if they come for the Communists, they're going to come for me next...this is a threat to all unions.

Greenhouse said despite all this debate, the New York Times has reported that Wisconsin is in much better fiscal shape than most states. Even the pension plan is in great shape. As for those other states, like New Jersey for example, Greenhouse said he thinks Gov. Chris Christie, "in his heart of hearts," would love to do the same kind of thing Gov. Walker's doing in Wisconsin.

Some people are saying that Gov. Walker is not letting this budget crisis, however serious or not it is, he's not letting this crisis go to waste.

Comparing the national economy crises to the NFL's labor negotiations, Greenhouse saw an interesting similarity. The NFL owners had record profits and are still asking the players to make concessions. In the American economy, corporations, like the NFL owners, are enjoying record profits, but are still asking the workforce to make concessions.

So the NFL is just doing in many ways what the rest of corporate America is doing, but the NFL players have one big advantage that the typical American worker doesn't have. They're extremely well known, many of them are quite beloved and when they fight back against the NFL owners, I think they will have much more public support.