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More Cash-Strapped States Take On Public Unions

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Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent, New York Times
Ohio State Sen. Keith Faber, (R)
Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor (1993-1997)

Wisconsin has been racked by protests against Gov. Scott Walker's plan to increase public workers' health care and pension contributions and eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights. Arizona, Ohio and other states with large budget deficits are considering similar measures.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This week, public employees will rally in dozens of state capitals across the country to protest proposed cutbacks in pay and benefits and especially plans to limit or eliminate collective bargaining rights.

And, across the country, governors point to ballooning deficits and argue that public workers have to make sacrifices along with everybody else.

At the moment, the epicenter is Madison, Wisconsin, where protests are going into their second week. We'll get an update in just a moment.

What should we expect from public employees in the state financial crisis? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Lucy Walker, director of an Oscar-nominated documentary that follows a Brazilian-American artist back home to create portraits of garbage pickers of Rio de Janeiro.

But first to Wisconsin and New York Times correspondent Steven Greenhouse. He joins us by phone from Madison. Nice to have you on the program again.

Mr. STEVEN GREENHOUSE (New York Times): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And what's the scene like there at the capitol?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: It's - I was trying to come up with a phrase, Neal. It's like a union Woodstock, a pro-union Woodstock. You know, inside the rotunda, it's just filled with people with signs, and they're singing "We Shall Not Be Moved," and there are banners over the railings.

And outside - and it's very cold here, it snowed a lot last night -there are several thousand people along the stairs, along the grounds, you know, listening to speakers, you know, denounce the governor and his efforts to, you know, cripple collective bargaining rights for many state workers. There's a really feisty mood here.

CONAN: And that's gone on for a week now, and the legislation would be passed, and indeed, it's pro forma, but part of that pro forma is that the governor needs a quorum.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes. There are - the Republicans have a majority in the state Senate of 19 to 14, but you need 20 people present in order to hold a vote on any financial matter, and the 14 Democrats have all fled the state. Apparently they're in Rockford, Illinois, just south of Wisconsin. And they say they're not going to come back to the state until and unless the governor agrees to compromise.

CONAN: And compromise. The unions, as I understand it, or at least some, have said they would be willing to make concessions on pay and benefits but not on collective bargaining.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Right, Neal. To explain a bit, so the governor has a -Governor Scott Walker has a bill called the Budget Repair Bill, and essentially it has two parts. One is - one would push through, you know, fairly significant, you know, economic concessions by the unions.

The unions would have start - union members would have to start paying 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions, and they'd have to basically double the amount they contribute towards the health plans, and that would mean, literally, a seven or eight percent cut in take-home pay for many public employees.

Then in the second part, he would basically, you know, very much weaken collective bargaining rights. Public sector unions would be able to bargain only about one thing, i.e., basic wages. They could not bargain over, you know, workloads or scheduling or health benefits or vacation or seniority rules.

And, you know, union leaders here say that will really kind of neuter unions as an entity, while Republicans here say the public sector unions are really an obstacle, a pain in the derriere, so to speak, to their efforts to balance the budget.

CONAN: And is this all the public service unions in Wisconsin?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Well, there's this little coincidence here that, you know, the governor decided to exempt certain unions: the police union, the firefighters union and the Wisconsin state troopers. And lo and behold, what unions endorsed the governor in last November's election? The Wisconsin state troopers, the Milwaukee police union and the Milwaukee firefighters union.

CONAN: And some people say the governor is, in fact, in the face of a real budget crisis attempting, though, to achieve a longstanding aim of Republicans, which is to cripple the unions, which have long been stalwarts of the Democratic Party.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Well, many Republicans, you know, as we know, are not in love with labor unions. And labor unions clearly make clear that they're not in love with Republicans.

I remember last October, Jerry MacEnty(ph), who's president of the nation's largest union of, you know, state, county and city workers, he boasted that his union was spending about $90 million to help the Democrats and defeat the Republicans.

And, you know, it's no surprise that that angered a lot of Republicans, and so when Republicans rolled to victory in a lot of Midwestern states, many of them with traditional union, you know, traditional union (unintelligible), you know, Governor Kasich in Ohio, Governor Scott Walker here in Wisconsin, they are trying - they're not hiding that they want to weaken unions.

And in both states the governor has - the governors have said that they greatly, greatly want to weaken the right of public employees in their states to unionize.

And, you know, union leaders say that's political payback. They're trying to, you know, cripple unions not just at the bargaining table but in politics. And you know, Karl Rove has said that, you know, if we can weaken unions significantly, that will be a boon to the Republicans in the 2012 elections.

CONAN: In the meantime, Republicans, and not just the governors, argue that those public service workers, well, they've been doing well while everybody else has been having a lot of trouble.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes, and, you know, in Wisconsin, private sector workers have really been taking it on the chin. One of my colleagues wrote a front-page story about all these workers at some, you know, very prominent companies here in Wisconsin voting to embrace two-tier contracts, meaning that future workers will earn considerably less money that current workers.

And, you know, that happened at Mercury Marine. It happened at Harley-Davidson. It happened at Kohler, the well-known plumbing company. So the private-sector workers are just feeling raw and angry, and I guess many of them feel resentful towards public-sector workers because, you know, many public-sector workers have very good health coverage, they have excellent pensions, and so, you know, Republican leaders and the Tea Party here and Republican think-tanks and many members of, you know, the private sector or the public are complaining that public-sector workers just have it too good.

This morning I interviewed the head of the biggest state employees' union here in Wisconsin, and he said: Well, you know, there are these academic studies that have come out over the past few months and years showing that public-sector workers really earn no more than private-sector workers when you factor in their education.

You know, in Wisconsin, 60 percent of public employees have college educations, whereas just 20 percent of private-sector workers do. So you would think that if workers have more education, of course they'd generally have somewhat higher salaries.

CONAN: There's also an argument that I've heard: You could double, as the governor's bill proposes to do - you could double the contribution to the health care benefits, and they would still be below average.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes, that's true, Neal. The - American workers, by and large, pay about 20, 25 percent of their health coverage costs. And in Wisconsin, Governor Walker is trying to raise that from the current six percent for Wisconsin public employees to 12 percent.

And again, you know, when I - you know, union leaders here say: We're willing to swallow these major concessions to help the governor balance the budget. We're willing to swallow the big economic concessions, the five point - contribute 5.8 percent towards pensions and double their healthcare contributions.

But they say they will not agree to have their collective bargaining rights eviscerated, that that's going too far. You know, just as, you know, many people see free speech rights and freedom of religion as basic American rights, many, many people here in Madison, you know, are demonstrating today because, and have been demonstrating all week, because they believe, you know, collective bargaining to be a fundamental right.

Now, Republicans like Scott Walker will say: Wait a second, in many states - many states have only given collective bargaining rights to public employee unions over the past few years. You know, 10, 15 states don't allow public employees to bargain.

CONAN: This is not exactly in the Bill of Rights.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Right, right.

CONAN: And is - a lot of this is going to settle down on a question of who wins support from the public, and how is that working out thus far?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: It's unclear how the - you know - you know, in truth, Neil, I haven't seen any polls showing how the public stands about this fight right now in Wisconsin. You know, I drove from the airport in Milwaukee to Madison today, and I haven't spent as much time as I might reading the papers.

But, you know, the union leaders say you look at the massive public support they're getting at the rallies, you know, and I guess there was this huge Saturday rally with 40,000, 50,000 - I was told CNN said there was 100,000. Governor Walker says that when he visits factories and talks to private-sector workers, they support him, that they think that government workers earn too much and that government workers have to be knocked down a few pegs.

CONAN: And is Wisconsin - is it fair to say this is a bellwether, that we could see similar kinds of things - you mentioned Ohio - but in other states as well?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: The phrase I keep hearing, Neal, from both sides is that this is ground zero for this. You know, Governor Walker, this very energetic, young, you know, telegenic, you know, new Republican governor, you know, is clearly taking the lead on this. He is the one who really wants to - you know, is taking on unions.

I think a lot of other governors have shrunk from really undertaking, you know, what some people say is a frontal assault. And if he succeeds here, I think it will very much embolden Republicans in Ohio to, you know, push just as hard, and if this happens in Wisconsin and Ohio, I imagine we'll see similar actions in some other states.

Now, the converse of that is unions have gotten very emboldened here in Wisconsin, and they say, you know, what we do here we will replicate in other states. We'll do the same thing in Columbus. We'll mount these huge protests in any other states where governors or legislators, legislatures, try to cripple our collective bargaining rights.

CONAN: And there have been complaints from unions throughout the first couple of years of the Obama administration for lack of support. Yet at least according to some stories, the Obama administration is coming out very much in favor of these protests.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Exactly, Neal. Unions feel that President Obama did not push hard enough to enact legislation they wanted that would have made it easier to unionize. The unions complain that the president didn't push hard enough for more stimulus funds. Clearly, many Republicans and Tea Party people totally, totally disagree.

So a few days ago, Governor - sorry, President Obama gave an interview to a Wisconsin television station where he criticized, you know, Governor Scott Walker. He said what the governor is doing is, in many ways, a quote - assault against unions, assault on unions. And many people interpret that as President Obama trying to make nice to unions to try to shore up his union base.

Not only that, you know, some people in the Obama administration helped mobilize Organizing for America, Obama grassroots movements, to call out people, urge people to...

CONAN: Steve Greenhouse, stay with us, if you will. More on this in just a moment. You're listening to NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

Wisconsin was the first state to give public workers collective bargaining rights five decades ago. Three-quarters of states eventually followed.

Now, a new proposal in Madison would roll back many of those rights for Wisconsin's public workers, and several other states appear ready to move ahead with legislation of their own to cut pay, benefits and pensions and limit bargaining power.

Governors, including Wisconsin's Scott Walker, point to large deficits and say they have no choice. Union workers argue they're being targeted for political reasons.

What should we expect from public employees in this state financial crisis? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can go to our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With us by phone from Madison is Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent for the New York Times. And joining us now is John(ph), John's calling us from Milwaukee.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks for taking my call. I'm calling because I'm actually on my way to Madison for the rally right now. I was a member of the graduate students' union at UW Milwaukee, when I was doing my master's degree. I have a lot of friends and family who are UW system educators: professors, faculty, academic staff. And from their point of view, they don't have a problem taking the pay cuts, paying more for their health insurance.

I'd also like to point out, I didn't hear this mentioned before, they have already taken substantial pay cuts in the term of state-mandated furlough days. So that, I mean, that amounts to another huge chunk out of their salary.

But they're willing to do that, and I think that they recognize, their unions recognize that they're going to have to make that sacrifice. But it's about these rights. It's about the fact that without the collective bargaining rights, it really hobbles the only major big-money forces in the Democratic Party to counter the corporations on the Republican side. So that's why I'm headed to Madison to protest.

CONAN: And how long are you willing to stay there on this principle?

JOHN: Absolutely, I'm willing to stay there. I've been there for several days already this past week, and I'm going to keep coming back as long as I can.

CONAN: As long as you can, so however long it takes.

JOHN: Yup.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

JOHN: Absolutely. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Ohio may be next in this debate. Governor John Kasich is also backing a bill, Senate Bill 5, that would restrict collective bargaining rights of public employees, and joining us now by phone from Columbus is Senator Keith Faber, who represents Ohio's 12th District and serves as the Senate pro tem - president pro tem. Nice to have you with us on the program today.

State Senator KEITH FABER (Republican, Ohio): It's good to be here.

CONAN: And I know you just heard that worker. I know you've heard similar sentiments there in the state of Ohio. Yes, people say, we'll negotiate cutbacks in pay and benefits, but why cutbacks on collective bargaining?

State Sen. FABER: Well, from our perspective, this is about trying to level the playing field. The playing field has been fairly skewed in dealing with the collective bargaining in government workers.

On the one side, it's much different to have collective bargaining with private sector, corporations and companies. You can actually see the lines. But in this case, particularly when dealing with locals and municipalities and school districts, you really, oftentimes, have got the workers negotiating against some of the people they helped elect.

But it goes beyond that. We're dealing with a huge budget issue here in Ohio, and we need to empower our local governments the ability to negotiate and manage their workforce.

Just for one example, we heard testimony last week. We had 11 and a half hours of testimony, over 40 people testified for and against Senate Bill 5. And we heard from one of the city council people from the city of Cincinnati that their personnel costs are going up in excess of 18 percent annually. And that's driven, in large part, because of the collective bargaining agreements that have been reached with their unions.

CONAN: And I'm sure you also heard people say: Then go back to your unions and negotiate a new agreement.

State Sen. FABER: Well, certainly that's part of it. But part of the system of Ohio that everybody agrees needs adjustment, including Democrats on our side, they just disagree that Senate Bill 5 is the way to adjust that - and that, by the way, is one of the reasons that I ask every single witness that comes before our committee: Tell us what you think needs to be improved in the current system, and tell us what you think needs to be improved in Senate Bill 5.

So far, we haven't gotten a whole lot of suggestions, but I digress. The current system in Ohio, essentially the way arbitration and the conciliation process goes, can leave local governments really in a lose-lose scenario, where they can propose what they need to get the reductions and the furloughs and those things in their bargaining, but then they go before an arbitrator who really doesn't have the ability to pick between either side and goes with a more modest approach, and at the end results in an agreement that the municipality just can't afford.

And so that's part of the problem. The other part of the problem is we've got years and years of things put in collective bargaining agreements - for example, again picking Cincinnati - that's going to leave policemen and firemen in the position, in some cases, being able to cash out with hundreds of thousands of dollars of unused sick days or vacation days, not at the rate at which they were accrued but at the current pay rates.

And that's just becoming - one newspaper estimated that Cincinnati's exposure to that is in excess of $90 million. That's part of the problem.

And certainly I don't begrudge any public workers and union the ability to negotiate a good deal from their part, and you're right, you sometimes say to the elected officials, if you give an agreement that you can't afford to pay, shame on you.

CONAN: Yeah.

State Sen. FABER: But we're in a situation now, that we frankly have scenarios where you can't negotiate with the current way the process works to where the arbitrators are essentially splitting the baby, and get the kind of concessions we need.

And so really, this is more about the ability to manage and trying to right the ship and make everything more flexible and more workable.

CONAN: And how do you respond to the criticism or the argument that, in effect, what we saw last November was Republicans being elected, not just in Ohio, but Wisconsin and a lot other places. It matters who wins and who loses, and part of the deal in politics is you reward your friends, and you punish your enemies. And in this case, the unions funded the other side.

State Sen. FABER: Well, certainly, you're going to have to have other guests on to talk about the hundreds of millions of dollars the unions, particularly the public-sector unions, spent on politics. That's beyond my knowledge and my expertise.

In Ohio, this really isn't about payback. It's about leveling the playing field. If we wanted to do payback, we would just go to a straight right-to-work state.

That's not what this bill does. It does still leave collective bargaining in place on some issues and in some places. But the real issue is trying to balance the playing field so that the managers, both at the state and local levels, can manage and get rid of those things that are just costing jobs and costing money, unnecessarily, and that's really what this is about.

CONAN: And does the level of protest that you've seen in Madison, should that come to Columbus, would that make a difference?

State Sen. FABER: Well, again, it depends on who's here. We want to take input from all sides. And we have been willing to have the hearing process. Ours is being done as a stand-alone bill, unlike the Madison, which appears to be part of the budget.

But we're in a little different scenario. We have been - we've taken now probably 15, 16 hours of testimony and had in excess of 50 witnesses testify. We've had hundreds of questions asked of those witnesses, and we've had a chance to flush out the issues.

And if the other side, the people who are opposed to Senate Bill 5, want to give us constructive input, we're happy to take it. But the real question for us is: Are you just trying to give constructive input, or are you just trying to continue your posturing and where you're going?

And so that's going to be the discussion. To me, this is about a simple issue. It's about: Are we going to give the governments who have to manage the ability to manage?

And by the way, I've never thought that government was such an oppressive employer that if they didn't have union, the workers were all going to be mistreated. And so that's really where the playing field is. That's really where we're going.

CONAN: Senator Faber, thanks very much. Appreciate your time.

State Sen. FABER: Thank you.

CONAN: Senator Keith Faber, who represents the 12th District in Ohio, a Republican, and Senate president pro tem of the legislature there. So he joined us on the line from Columbus.

Steven Greenhouse, just to get back to one of the things that Senator Faber was saying, that some of this is about leveling the playing field, that indeed the unions have an awful lot of leverage in negotiation.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: The senator made some very strong points, but on one hand, unions have an advantage - public employee unions have an advantage over private-sector unions. They help - you know, they can contribute to campaigns to help elect their bosses, so to speak.

And I think the senator raises a point that many people make that, you know, when unions help elect friends, you know, and especially Democrats to head city councils or be mayors or county executives, maybe those mayors and county executives don't negotiate very hard. Maybe they're generous, too generous with the unions. And that's a problem.

But unions will say, well, for them, you know, they'll argue that there's not a level playing field. They'll say private-sector workers have a right to strike, whereas most government workers do not have a right to strike; and the government unions will say, you know, that really gives us, you know, less of a level playing field.

And I think the senator made another point about so-called pension spiking, where a lot of workers work hundreds of hours of overtime in the last year or two on the job, and that greatly, greatly inflates their ultimate pensions.

And I think many people are wondering why, you know, city, state, county officials ever let that happen in the first place because many people are leaving with pensions of over $100,000, and a lot of people are saying that is unfair.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Danica(ph), Danica with us from Rice Lake in Wisconsin.

DANICA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

DANICA: I just think that furloughs would be a solution for the problem, rather than trying to, you know, get right of unions. I'm not unionized. I'm a public worker from Wisconsin, but when you take away the right to unionize, and you take away health benefits and you take away, you know, all of our ways to really support ourselves - I mean, I make $43,000 a year. The cuts that Governor Walker is trying to impose upon me as a state worker is going to literally cut my income by more like 15 percent.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DANICA: And I've been taking furloughs. I can work with my furloughs. But that is a temporary fix until the economy gets back on track.

CONAN: Furloughs are unpaid vacation days.

DANICA: Correct.

CONAN: And how many furlough days did you take over the past year?

DANICA: I believe it's 16 per year.

CONAN: And that's a pretty big cut in your pay, too.

DANICA: Three percent.

CONAN: All right. Are you planning to go down to Madison to take part in the protest?

DANICA: I've been down to Madison protest.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

DANICA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Joining us now from member station WMFE in Orlando is Robert Reich, who served as president - secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He's now professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. His op-ed, "The Shameful Attack on Public Employees," ran last month in The Huffington Post.

And always nice to have you with us, Robert Reich.

Professor ROBERT REICH (Public Policy, University of California Berkeley): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: And as you've been listening to this argument, should not public employees be asked to make sacrifices in these states where there are so many big deficits?

Prof. REICH: Well, I think it is appropriate to ask public employees to make sacrifices, along with everybody else. The problem here - and I think what's being lost in a lot of these debates, Neal, is that public employees didn't suddenly increased their wages and salaries or bargaining power in 2008 when many of these states went into budget crises. In fact, if anything, public employees - as some of your callers have made very clear - have been taking wage cuts and pension cuts.

The real change that's occurred since 2008, obviously, has been the great recession. And the great recession has really driven a lot of state revenues down and put states into a terrible, terrible budget crisis. But to take away the bargaining rights of public employees rather than simply ask them for wage and benefit concessions really goes - you're into a different universe. You're into a universe of really taking away their power. What we're talking really here about is power -the power of public employees, the power of Democrats versus the power of Republicans, in many of these states.

CONAN: So you subscribe to the argument this is about political payback.

Prof. REICH: Oh, I don't think there's any question about it. I mean, the mere fact that the governor of Wisconsin did not include those unions, the police union and the firefighters' unions that had supported him in his legislation to take away bargaining rights should reveal everything.

CONAN: And what about the argument that public employees make more than their comparable people in the private sector?

Prof. REICH: Well, that's not true if you take account of the fact that public employees, in general, are much - have a much higher level of education. There are more teachers, more social workers who have BA's. Counselors, public defenders, public prosecutors, all of these people do need, at the very least, a college degree. And relative to others in the private sector with college degrees, public sector employees actually are paid less.

In Wisconsin, for example, college-educated workers earn about, in the public sector, about 9 percent less - even before all of the furloughs and everything else - than their contemporary - than their college-educated workers in the private sector.

CONAN: We're talking about public employees and public debt. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let me reintroduce our guests. You just heard Robert Reich, who's a professor of public policy now at the University of California, Berkeley. Also with us, Steve Greenhouse, whose a labor and workplace correspondent for The New York Times.

And, Steve, reading the paper in the past few days, it's interesting to see that Wisconsin - though the ground zero, as you described it, in this battle - is just about in the middle in terms of its deficit problems.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes. You know, some people have commented that Governor Scott Walker here, the new Republican governor, is not letting budget crisis, even a moderate budget crisis go to waste. And, you know, many people say he could probably balance the budget by getting some economic concessions out of the unions without having to, you know, basically scrap collective bargaining rights.

You know, it's interesting that, you know, in New jersey, Governor Chris Christie, in New York State, you know, Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, in New York City, Mike Bloomberg, an independent, John Kasich in Ohio, Governor Walker here, they're all very, very much taking on the unions. And lo and behold, many people are whispering that all these people are interested in running for president some day.

And I think - and, you know, public sector unions hate to admit this, but, you know, public-sector unions have kind of become a political pinata, and a lot of politicians realize that they could show how tough they are and how serious they are about budget deficits by kicking around public-sector unions. And, you know, public sector union leaders wonder: How did this come to pass? They say, you know, that Wall Street caused the great recession, that the real problem, financial problem, fiscal problem that states face, that cities face nowadays is a lack of revenues, not overly generous public sector wages.

CONAN: And, Robert Reich, there's a perception of that that public sector employees have a nice, safe job, while very few in the very private sector do, and protections and benefits that are not available to a lot of people in the private sector, and that somehow - especially in hard times - well, they're cushioned, cottoned from all of the ravages of the recession.

Prof. REICH: Well, Neal, as several of your callers have made clear, they aren't protected in the sense that many state workers have had to give furloughs and sacrifice pay and sacrifice other elements of their compensation during these hard times. But, you know, you can't help but look at all of this, what's happening at the state levels in terms of these Republicans who are attacking the right to unionize among public-sector workers - or certainly the right to collectively bargain anything other than straight wages - and the similar kind of a showdown that's occurring in Washington over the federal budget deficit.

It's almost as if - and I don't want to appear too cynical. But it's almost as if Republicans want to deflect attention from the fact that you've got these extraordinary, almost unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the very top, among the top 1 percent or top 1/10th of 1 percent of Americans, and would rather have unionized versus non-unionized Americans, public sector employees versus non-public sector employees, various workers in various categories who are all earning 45,000 or $50,000 a year kind of be angry at each other and envious of each other and feel that it's a zero-sum game in which one set of middle-class workers wins to the extent that another set of middle-class workers loses.

CONAN: Steve Greenhouse, we're going to have to say thank you for your time. We'll let you get back to reporting for your organization, The New York Times, and look forward to your story tomorrow in the paper.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Thanks much. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Steven Greenhouse for The New York Times joined us by phone from Madison, Wisconsin. We're going to ask Robert Reich to stay with us, take a couple of more calls, after a short break. And we'll also, after that break, be back to our series on Oscar-nominated documentaries with "Waste Land."

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: We're wrapping up our conversation about the political battle in Wisconsin and the larger battle over public employees and public debt. And our guest is Robert Reich, a former professor of - secretary of labor under President Clinton and now professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. 800-989-8255.

And let's get Abraham on the line, Abraham with us from Camden in Georgia.

ABRAHAM (Caller): Hello. Thank you, Neal. My question is this: Why can't there be a time limit on how long these rights are eliminated, as in put it off for - put it to one or two years, maybe three, if that's when the next governor election is?

CONAN: That would be in about four years, but that doesn't seem to be on the table, Abraham.

ABRAHAM: I'm just asking, is there a reason there's not an option like that available?

CONAN: Robert Reich, is that been coming up in any - not just in Wisconsin, but in other places, as well?

Prof. REICH: No. I haven't heard it anywhere around, Abraham. I think one of the reasons is that public-employee unions, just like private-sector employee unions, feel that once you take bargaining rights off the table, they'll never get back on the table, because you remove the table. There's no way to negotiate back something that you've lost.

ABRAHAM: I understand that, but I'm asking for both parties to put it into some form of a contract that says we waive our rights, but we get them back. And also, on the other side of the aisle, the governor has to put in the other unions that he's exempted.

Prof. REICH: Mm-hmm. Well, I suspect, I mean, that may be something that is put on the table, but I suspect that a lot of public employee unions and public employees, both in Wisconsin and Ohio and Indiana and across the country, basically are prepared to say - as they are apparently in Wisconsin - look, if you need - if it's necessary for the budget, we are going to be willing to give you some - more wage concessions, more furloughs, more concessions on perhaps benefits, health benefits and pension benefits. But when you actually get to the structure of bargaining, we don't want to make any concessions, because that's not really about the budget any longer. That's really about our relative voice, our capacity in the future to express ourselves, and ultimately our political power.

CONAN: Abraham, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Here's an email we have from Anne: My question is why is no one talking about how the management of these unions let their membership down by leading them down a path that is unsustainable?

And you talked in your piece, Robert Reich, how some of the benefits -well, the spikes in the - that lead to larger pensions and, of course, double-dipping pensions, which some situations allow, that those are really - are unsustainable.

Prof. REICH: Yes, they are unsustainable. And I think any discussion, realistically, about the role of public employee unions, has got to acknowledge that there are some practices that are simply unwarranted. And spiking, as we defined it, is one of them. And I think that some of the fact - some of these defined benefits, particularly with regard to pensions, Neal, now that they're almost non-existent in the private sector, there is perhaps a good reason that some governors are saying, well, we ought to move toward defined contributions for pensions in the public sector, as well.

But when we get to the larger question of wages and benefits and a voice - and that's really what we're talking about here - I don't think they're - it's justifiable to say that the public employee union leaders have sort of lead their employees astray. The typical public employee in this country right now - I'm talking about the median - is earning $45,000 a year as a final salary before pension, and then collecting $19,000 in pensions per year. And the taxpayers are only contributing 14 percent of that $19,000 a year. In other words, it's not really out of line with the private sector at all. And as we talked about before, considering the level of education, most public employees are actually behind their contemporaries in the private sector.

CONAN: Robert Reich, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Prof. REICH: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Robert Reich, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. And he joins us from member station WMFE in Orlando.

Coming up next, "Waste Land."

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