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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Protesters rally outside the Wisconsin State Capitol on February 21, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Eric Thayer/Getty)

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.


More in:

Comments [30]

Ellen from NJ from New Jersey

To mindless Martin from Manhattan, The difference is that Acorn and Organizing for America are not being supported by two evil, selfish men (like you I suspect) who are out to destroy their opponents and only make more money at the expense of human rights.

Feb. 23 2011 10:43 AM


Feb. 23 2011 02:01 AM

"Public-Employees Union Now Leads All Groups in Independent Election Outlays"

October 22, 2010 - Wall Street Journal

"The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is now the biggest outside spender of the 2010 elections, thanks to an 11th-hour effort to boost Democrats that has vaulted the public-sector union ahead of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and a flock of new Republican groups in campaign spending. . . ."

Feb. 22 2011 01:29 PM
Mr. Bad from NYC

@ geTaylor

It's not my policy, it's the comment policy:

"Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief."

I could care less if someone wants to make a long comment, in order to support a point, but pasting a long excerpt of state law, impenetrable without annotation or context and also utterly off topic is pretty obnoxious.

Feb. 22 2011 12:26 PM

@Mr. Bad from NYC:

jawbone doesn't have to meet your expectations (or mine) about what belongs in these comment sections.
My preference would be that pastings should be kept to the minimum necessary to make a point; and should always include an identification of the source (a web address for the source if possible).
Let's be mutually transparent. (

;- )

Feb. 22 2011 12:08 PM
Mr. Bad from NYC

@ Brian from Nj

Yeah, like in NYC with the Taylor Law. NYC teachers are still operating under a contract that expired years ago, when tax revenues were high and there compensation/perks very, very generous.

Good deal for them, the longer they draw out negotiations the longer they avoid cutting a deal to take some strain off of the state budget. Just don't ask them to teach three classes in a row, that is "banned" by the current contract in force - that is there "me time", on the clock.

Check it out:

Feb. 22 2011 12:01 PM
Brian from Nj

Considering that the unions are willing to come
To the table and negotiate, this smells like union busting. I will point out however that in some places here in NJ and elsewhere, there are laws and contracts in which the public unions can refuse to come to the table and instead the union gets automatic pay raises prescribed by the contract. A clause like that would be reason to not necessarily bust the union but to play serious hardball.

Feb. 22 2011 11:54 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

@ jawbone

Why not stick to the subject at hand? If anybody cares enough about your crazy rambling they can sure enough find the law themselves. Copying and pasting an entire paragraph of law out of context ruins the comment section for everyone and makes you look like a nut. Go be a reporter if you want to be, this is for commenting on news stories, not breaking them.

Feb. 22 2011 11:41 AM


Why don't you just tell us what the total $ contribution of unions vs. the nefarious Koch brothers in the last Wisconsin election?
Please include the web address for the source of the information?

Does anyone know if the nefarious Koch brothers contribute to the support of the public broadcasting corporation?

Feb. 22 2011 11:40 AM

Protest in solidarity with Wisconsin Unions today at 5pm in front of FOX News on 6th ave and 47th st.

Feb. 22 2011 11:36 AM

Ah, found language from the legislation pertinent to selling power/heating/cooling plants:

"SECTION 44. 16.896 of the statutes is created to read:
16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state−owned heating, cooling,
and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the

department may sell any state−owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may

contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without

solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best

interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or

certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to

purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is

considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification

of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b)"

Why the no-bid bit? Well, probably a request by the purchaser....

Feb. 22 2011 11:33 AM
Nancy from NJ

It's ironic that Governor Walker is concerned about the cost of public employee's benefits to taxpayers, yet he has joined in the Florida/multi-state lawsuit challenging the healthcare reform law, which is designed to slow the growth of healthcare costs and provide increased competition and choice by establishing healthcare exchanges.

Clearly, the governor is pursuing an ideological agenda that goes far beyond the professed goal of fiscal responsibility.

Feb. 22 2011 11:32 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

Unions are so principled, "pay your dues or else" just like the mob.

It's a fair comparison, the mob would never allow anyone else to "tax" the businesses they ran, had to protect the franchise.

What is the union response to "right to work law"?


Is that a lawful principle now for anyone but sovereign elected governments? Well bully for them, they should start unionizing bank robbers!

Feb. 22 2011 11:30 AM

I have personally come to terms with the union power to force all employees to pay dues to a union shop. What I don't understand is why the "enthusiastic" union members must have their dues collected by the employer, whether that employer is the "government" or a private entity.

I guess tyranny is always easier for the tyrant.

Feb. 22 2011 11:30 AM

Martin Chuzzlewit: Do you have links or sources for your statement that ACORN and OFA are sending busloads of people to Madison?


Feb. 22 2011 11:27 AM
Geo from Downtown

Come Support Unions on Feb 24 at City Hall.!!! 12-2pm.

We need as many people there as possible.
We cant let the cheeseheads get all the glory!
NYC Unite!

Feb. 22 2011 11:27 AM
Tony from Canarsie

I'm amazed that campaign contributions has not been brought up in this discussion. Your guest is knowledgeable, but he works for a newspaper with a long history of anti-unionism.

Feb. 22 2011 11:25 AM

Note to self: Proofreading is a good thing.

Feb. 22 2011 11:24 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

I love how these unions care so much for their "right" to collective bargaining but COMPEL by law their members to pay union dues. If you want a job in a union biz in a state without "right to work" laws you don't get a "right" not to join .... It's pay up or hit the bricks? That sounds very Democratic, patronage or else LOL.

Feb. 22 2011 11:24 AM

There's a reason Unions are so weak these days. Corporate interests adopted the techniques used by unions to protect workers' interests, but corporate lobbies had access to a much larger 'war chest'.

Read more here:

Feb. 22 2011 11:23 AM

What's at issue is that these new rules in Wisconsin are exempting unions that support Republicans (i.e. police union)

Feb. 22 2011 11:22 AM

Please ask what the reporter nows about other features of Walker's budget "fix," as in "the fix is in" on sales of state power plant sales on a no-bid basis.

Then think about the Koch brothers' desire to build a vertical monopoly in the energy field. This DKos diary covers how Walker may be providing theaccess to buying state-owned power generation plants for pennies on the dollar. That's why there's the no bid part...their success can't be guaranteed if the process is open and transparent.

(BTW, doesn't Wisconsin have laws about selling assets? Like, with bids and transparency? How can this do done?)

This is sort of like when the USSR assets were sold off to the highest bidder for access (unless they were already in power and had the access as part of that), and then got to buy the assets for the lowest dollar in purchase price. Lowest return to the people via their government; highest return to the Oligarchs.

I vaguely recall some critics of the neo-libs' advice to Russia saying this kind of cronyism would be coming the US in due time. With ConservaCrazy Republicans its here.

The diary says this is actually the end game objective, that the attack on collective bargaining succeeding would be a nice bonus, but the real objective is for the Koch brothers to achieve a vertical monopoly in Wisconsin and wherever they can get their puppets in power.

And, according to a local article, the actual legislation has still not been made public?

Has the reporter seen the actual legislative language?

Feb. 22 2011 11:22 AM
Jim from Brooklyn

Freedom of association is a basic American right.

Feb. 22 2011 11:21 AM
art525 from Park Slope

I agree with the stance that this is union busting. I think there is also another motive at work here. It seems to me that Walker's effort to make union dues voluntary is an attempt to wipe out union money that can be used to support candidates who obviously would be Democratic candidates. So here is a parallel to when the Dems left texas to avoid redistricting. It is all an attempt by Republicans to have more slanted election opportunities.

Feb. 22 2011 11:19 AM
Dan from Jersey City

Haven't the public unions expressed their willingness to negotiate and give concessions? If this is truly about the budget rather than politics, why did Gov. Walker reject this proposal without seemingly considering it?

Feb. 22 2011 11:18 AM
Edward from NJ

How are the budgets in the 12 states that don't allow collective bargaining for public sector workers?

Feb. 22 2011 11:14 AM
Mike from Tribeca

What can you expect after the Koch brothers and other wealthy industrialists make large campaign donations Republicans?

Follow the money.

Feb. 22 2011 11:14 AM

Do you job as a reporter and report the facts that the Guv is excepting from this bill the Unions that supported him!!!

Proof positive that this is nothing more than politically-motivated union busting: punishing the unions that support the Dems and exempting the unions that support the Repubs.

Feb. 22 2011 11:14 AM
Jacob from Brooklyn

F.Y.I. Wisconsin public opinion seems to be breaking against Walker:

Feb. 22 2011 11:10 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Unions from all over the country have sent busloads of protesters to Madison, as have the re-named ACORN and Obama's campaign arm ORGANIZING FOR AMERICA..... and what do our guest Mr. Greenhouse and Eric Lipton write about in their NYT story on Wisconsin? The evil Koch brothers !!!!!!! You can't even parody the NYT.

Feb. 22 2011 11:03 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by