Public Sector Unions: Who Do They Really Serve?

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The Wisconsin Assembly today passed Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill. The legislation effectively strips most public workers of their union bargaining rights. The State Senate must also pass the bill before it can be signed into law. Senate Democrats have left Wisconsin to prevent a vote. The fight has sparked huge demonstrations in the state capital, Madison, with protests planned in other state capitals tomorrow. The controversy raises new questions about the role and impact of public sector unions. Host Michel Martin debates with issue with former unionist and Reagan administration appointee Linda Chavez, and labor economist John Schmitt.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, we're going to dig into the question about the relationships between state and local governments and the people who for work for them. In a few minutes, we'll hear from a city in Alabama that hasn't paid its retired workers their pensions in almost two years. We'll find out why and how the workers feel about it.

But first, we want to dig into that dramatic showdown over labor rights in Wisconsin. Early this morning, the Wisconsin state assembly passed a bill requested by Governor Scott Walker that effectively strips most public workers of their bargaining rights. The governor says he needs the flexibility to fix a projected $3.6 billion budget hole over the next two years.

In the assembly, the debate went on for 61 hours before it was cut off abruptly at about 1 a.m. by Republican Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, leading to chants of, shame, by Democrats.

(Soundbite of state assembly)

Mr. BILL KRAMER (Republican Speaker Pro Tempore, Wisconsin): Having been read three times, shall the bill be passed? All in favor will vote aye.

(Soundbite of protests)

Mr. KRAMER: All opposed will vote no. The court will open the roll.

(Soundbite of protests)

CROWD: Shame, shame, shame, shame.

MARTIN: And that vote does not end it. Knowing that they are outnumbered in the Senate, Senate Democrats have left town to prevent a vote. The fight has sparked huge demonstrations in the state capital of Madison and protests are planned in all 50 state capitals tomorrow.

Now, the controversy is sparking new questions about unions in general and public employee unions in particular. Union supporters are saying Walker's aggressive tactics are exactly why unions are needed. But critics are saying union intransigents at a time of crisis is why unions don't really advance the best interest of their members.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called on two labor experts with very different perspectives. Linda Chavez is a former union official. She served in the Reagan administration. She was George W. Bush's nominee for secretary of Labor until she withdrew her name. Among her publications, "Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics." She now heads a think tank called the Center for Equal Opportunity.

Also with us, John Schmitt. He's a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He's done extensive research on how union membership benefits American workers.

I reached both of them before the Wisconsin assembly vote and I started by asking Linda Chavez whether the fight in that state was inevitable or whether it's become so heated, in part, because of a lack of political skill.

Ms. LINDA CHAVEZ (Chair, Center for Equal Opportunity): Well, I think it was in fact inevitable. What you've had over the last couple of decades is very prominent growth among union membership in the public sector. Unions are an endangered species when it comes to private sector workers. They're less than 7 percent. Private sector workers are in fact union members. But over a third of all public employee are members of unions.

And you've seen this huge growth. But it's more than that. It really has to do with the way in which public employee unions see their role and their very active role in politics. They essentially elect their own bosses. And the public employee unions have contributed huge amounts in recent elections, 100 million from the AFL-CIO, 40 million from the NEA in the 2010 election, 50 million from AFSCME, the state county municipal employees unions and 95-plus percent of that money has gone to Democratic candidates.

So they shouldn't be terribly surprised that when the Republicans get in, they're not exactly union friendly.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that perspective that you wrote about in your book. But, John Schmitt, first, I want to hear from you. What is your sense of the conflicts that's happening now?

Mr. JOHN SCHMITT (Senior Economist, Center for Economic and Policy Research): I have a different view. I don't think that what we're seeing is inevitable. I think it is an opportunistic move on the part of the governor in Wisconsin. It's not the case that the public sector is more and more unionized. But what's happened is that the private sector unionization rate has been falling.

In terms of the political impact of this, I disagree with Linda. I think it's one thing to cite the amounts of money that unions give in political campaigns, but you have to put that in perspective. If you look at the 2010 congressional election cycle, there are about $1.1 billion worth expenditures around those elections. But only about 5 percent of those expenditures were made by unions and about 75 percent were made by corporations.

So these kinds of differences, if we're worried about money and politics, I think we're looking in the wrong place. I think it's a corporate influence that is really the problem.

MARTIN: Well, you know, the union people, Linda, of whom you used to be one, say they only call it class warfare when the workers fight back, right? So the question I have for you is that as a former union official yourself, you spent eight years working for the American Federation of Teachers. But as the title of one of your books suggests, you really do believe that unions are now a destructive force. Why do you think there's specifically a negative force for their workers?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, let me just give an example. The unions, right now the fight in Wisconsin, a lot of it is about whether or not unions are going to have to face elections every year to represent the workers. It's about whether or not they're going to be able to bargain over things other than wages. And it is about whether or not the state is going to collect union dues.

Well, in most voluntary organizations, when I, you know, contribute to an organization, I write the checks to the organization I'm contributing to or that represents me even if it's a membership organization. That's not the case with public sector workers. The money is taken out of their paychecks often without, you know, they don't even necessarily get a say in it unless it's a right to work state.

And so, some of these changes I actually think would benefit those individuals who are public sector workers. They could then decide. Is this union and their emphasis on political activity what I want or do I want more of the, you know, contract focus on wages, more grievance disputes, et cetera?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Linda Chavez, she's chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a former Reagan administration official, a former nominee for secretary of Labor. And John Schmitt, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And we're talking about the whole question of whether unions benefit their members and, more broadly, the communities in which they are located.

John Schmitt, what's your thought about this? And I'm interested in your take on this argument that certainly the governor of Wisconsin is making that this is clearly a time of budget pain. Nobody disputes that Wisconsin and a number of other states are in a world of hurt. And he's saying that the union members have to do their fair share, and that the unions are an impediment to union members having to shoulder their fair share of the burden of pain.

Mr. SCHMITT: Yeah. I think that the unions in Wisconsin definitely recognize the situation is very serious. And they've already made major concessions. And what's interesting is that that was not enough for the governor. The governor is not primarily focused on addressing those particular issues around the budget right now. What he's focused on is preventing unions going forward from having the ability to collectively bargain on behalf of their members.

Turning to an issue that Linda just raised about the question of benefits, which I think has become a central point in this discussion. Again, it's a case where the public sector has managed to maintain the level of benefits that were customary, say, 30 years ago at a pretty consistent level throughout the last 30 years. What has happened is that the level of coverage, for example, for health care of for defined benefit pension plans has collapsed in the private sector.

Now, we are much richer than we were 30 years ago. Our GDP per person, our national income per person is 65 percent higher than it was 30 years ago. And yet we are no longer able to maintain outside of union context, for the most part, any kind of level of benefits that we routinely gave to workers 30 years ago. That goes to the problem of economic inequality and I think unions are part of the solution there.

MARTIN: Linda, what about that? You know, John Schmitt's arguing that the issue is not what public employees get, the fact that private sector employees don't get that. That is what he says the issue should be and that also, I think the corollary argument that he's making is that income inequality has become so pronounced in the society that people are looking at the wrong people to be made at. What do you say to that?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, what I would say to that is when we were in good flush times, when people were all working and everybody was paying taxes and those treasuries were growing in states and local governments, nobody was complaining much about the public sector employees.

But that is not where we are today and, in fact, you're looking at unfunded benefits, the pension benefits in particular that some economists estimate are anywhere between $3 and $5 trillion of money that will have to be paid out at some time that state and local governments simply don't have. And so the question is what we can afford.

MARTIN: Could you address one question, though, that we kind of glossed over that John Schmitt was saying, in fact, you pointed out that, really, a minority of the work forces unionize. It's about 13 percent overall. And maybe 30 percent of the public employees are unionized. So, can they really have that impactful, an effect on the economy when they're a minority of the workforce?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, they can in terms of having the public sector be that part of the whole labor movement that is growing. And they can, in fact, when there are more public employees today, we see that sector of our economy growing rather than being restricted.

And, again, because they are so active in politics and they can negotiate contracts with people whom they've helped elect in Democratic legislators, Democratic mayors, Democratic governors over the last couple of decades, they have had a big impact and that's why we've seen state and local governments grow.

MARTIN: John, I'm going to ask you to respond to what Linda said and then I'm going to ask each of you a final question about what you think the current conflict portends.

Mr. SCHMITT: Well, if we want to understand why we're in the mess that we're in right now. I think it's very difficult to suggest it has anything to do with public sector workers or with private sector unionized workers. We are in the mess we're in because the economy hit a very, very bad bump. And we're in a weird situation where I think a lot of conservatives, who have a lot of faith in the long-term power of capitalism and the economy, are telling us that we're too poor going forward to be able to continue to provide a standard of living that we routinely, and as Linda said, without any difficulty, were able to provide in the past.

MARTIN: OK, that's where we wanted to end up. What do you think this current conversation about what we're seeing in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other localities, you know, portends for the future. Linda, I gave you the first word, I'm going to give John Schmitt the last word. So why don't you start?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Sure. Well, I do think that we are going to see more of these fights. We are already seeing them spread throughout the Midwest. Even in California, Jerry Brown who is a Democrat who was elected governor has decided he's going to have to take on some of the unions there. Of course, we've got in New Jersey a Republican governor who's taken on the teachers unions. So I think this is the beginning of a long conversation. I think that unions themselves, and I am not anti-union. I've been a union member, I've worked for unions. I think they have to sort of rethink what their mission is.

And I think they've got to get back to being able to appeal to people to join them voluntarily, to be willing to part with those dues because the union provides a service to them. And all of those things, I think, could still be maintained even if that Wisconsin bill were to pass.

MARTIN: John Schmitt, final thought? What does this say about the future? If anything, do you think this is just a moment in time?

Mr. SCHMITT: I think it's a moment in time. I hope that it is the beginning of a resurgence of the labor movement around the issues of lowering the level of inequality we had. From the end of the Great Depression until the 1970s, economic inequality in the United States was actually falling. The last 30 years have been very difficult and I think, in part, that reflects the decline and the influence of the labor movement in public policy and the decline of the labor movement in negotiating wages and benefits for its workers.

MARTIN: John Schmitt is a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity. She's also here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Thank you.

Mr. SCHMITT: Thank you.

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