Across U.S., Unions Fight To Keep Bargaining Rights

In Wisconsin, Ohio and a growing number of other states, unions are fighting attempts to scale back the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers. Host Michele Norris talks to Richard Hurd, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, about how these rights vary by state — and their impact on wages and benefits.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

At stake in Wisconsin and Ohio are the collective bargaining rights of public workers. For most private workers, those rights are ensured by federal law, but states primarily make those laws when it comes to their public employees. And that means there is a complicated patchwork of laws all around the country. What goes in Wisconsin, for example, may not be permissible in Texas.

Joining me to help explain this patchwork is Richard Hurd. He's professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

Professor, welcome to the program.

Professor RICHARD HURD (Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University): Good afternoon, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, imagine that we're looking at a map and give us the lay of the land here. It sounds like states fall into one of three categories.

Prof. HURD: Yes. About half of the states have comprehensive laws that cover all public employees. Another quarter of the states have laws for a portion of the public sector. For instance, it could be state employees only or local employees only or education employees only.

And then, about eight or nine states either have no bargaining at all or limit the bargaining to a very small group. For instance, in Texas, it's firefighters who have the right to bargain. Whereas you have a state like Wisconsin or New York or New Jersey, those states have comprehensive coverage.

NORRIS: So Wisconsin it sounds like falls into that category, of course, where collective bargaining, for now, is allowed.

Prof. HURD: Right. Wisconsin was the first state to pass a collective bargaining law - that was in the late 1950s - and they have offered their public employees collective bargaining rights for now 50 years.

NORRIS: Before we move on, I'm curious. There are a small number of states, as you say, where collective bargaining is not allowed. How did that come to be?

Prof. HURD: Well, that's where it starts. There's no collective bargaining unless the state takes affirmative action and puts a law in place that facilitates collective bargaining.

Most states that have collective bargaining, which is a clear majority, passed their laws in the 1960s or '70s. There were a few more in the '80s and a couple here and there since then.

NORRIS: In Wisconsin, Governor Walker is arguing that collective bargaining allows these unions to win things that are quite expensive for the state, things like health care and pension funds and things like this. Help us understand what exactly collective bargaining does cover outside of wages.

Prof. HURD: Well, collective bargaining is a process where labor and management sit down together and work out all of the rules of the relationship. So collective bargaining contracts typically cover things like how are vacations assigned, how is bidding for new jobs handled, so if jobs open who has preference in getting those jobs.

It may include certain seniority protections. It includes procedures in place. So if a worker feels that they have been treated unfairly, they can file for a formal hearing. And then there's also all kinds of details about the relationship between labor and management.

NORRIS: Governor Walker of Wisconsin is claiming that unionized public sector employees have it better than private sector employees. Is that actually true when it comes to wages and benefits?

Prof. HURD: If you look at raw information, just bare, looking at wages and how much people are paid, public sector workers indeed are paid more than private sector workers. That's in any state, whether it has unions or not.

However, public sector workers tend to have much higher education levels. So if you compare by education level, private sector workers earn about 10 percent more than public sector workers for any given level of education.

And then if you narrow it further and look at the more professional occupations, then public sector workers' deficit compared to private sector workers on wages is about 25 percent.

To be complete about this, you do need to look at benefits. And it is true that in general in the public sector, workers are more likely to have comprehensive health coverage and more likely to have a defined benefit pension plan than in the private sector. But this is true in states with unions and states without unions alike.

So it isn't whether you're unionized that determines whether you have good health care and benefits, it's whether you're public sector or not.

NORRIS: With these debates flaring up all around the country now - first Wisconsin, then Ohio and now being discussed in a quite animated way in several other states - how would you characterize the moment that we're in right now?

Prof. HURD: Clearly it's not unprecedented for employers in either the public or private sector, during a period of economic stress, to go to their workers and ask for changes, either reducing the number the employees, using furloughs. That's pretty standard in a tough economic time, whether you're in the public or private sector. So in a sense, that's just what's happening everywhere.

But certainly it seems to be the case in some of these states that you're talking about now that are having proposals come forward to reduce bargaining rights and try to greatly weaken public sector unions, less so in a lot of other states.

We're really talking about a handful of states for these really aggressive proposals. In most states it's being handled through the bargaining process.

NORRIS: Richard Hurd, thank you very much.

Prof. HURD: You're welcome.

NORRIS: Richard Hurd is a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.