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The protests in Wisconsin illustrate the power of public sector labor unions. While union membership is down across the country, government workers are a huge exception. Many critics say public employee unions have used their clout to negotiate generous benefits, which they contend ought to be scaled back in the current fiscal crisis. Union officials say they're being scapegoated for the economy's problems. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI: The public sector is one of the last bastions of strength for the labor movement - a little more than 9 percent of people who work for private employers belong to unions. Among state, local and federal employees, the number is more than 36 percent.

James Sherk is an analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. JAMES SHERK (Senior Policy Analyst, Heritage Foundation): Most union members now work in government. A majority of all union members are government employees.

ZARROLI: And that's true, even though many states, especially in the South, bar government workers from unionizing or restrict their bargaining power.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says the strength of unions today is relative. He says union membership has fallen overall because so many manufacturing jobs have gone overseas.

Professor NELSON LICHTENSTEIN (History, University of California at Santa Barbara): In the public sector, well, it's quite different. You can't move the functions of the state of Wisconsin to China - they have to be there. The Department of Motor Vehicles pretty much has to be in the locality where it is.

ZARROLI: Because government unions have been able to maintain much of their power over the years, politicians have had to learn to coexist with them. In recent years, strikes have been rare. But the Heritage Foundation's James Sherk says in exchange governors and mayors have had to promise benefits that taxpayers couldn't afford.

Mr. SHERK: For decades, elected officials have kicked the can down the road and promised you generous benefits to retirement and after they leave office. Well, now we're at the end of the road and now, you know, the bill's coming due.

ZARROLI: Many union officials take issue with that. Art Pulaski of the California Labor Federation says government employees may get somewhat better benefits than those who work in the private sector but they earn a bit less, considering their education and skill levels and they have recently had to endure pay cuts and layoffs.

Mr. ART PULASKI (Chief Officer, California Labor Federation): I think it's very important not to blame public workers for the crisis that our cities and states face right now. All right? I think that you really need to look at what was the cause of the economic crisis that perpetrated, if you will, the mess that we're in now. And that really goes back to what happened on Wall Street.

ZARROLI: Still, labor officials acknowledge that resentment is building against them and they're watching the current problems in Wisconsin with some trepidation. Wisconsin was one of the first states to allow collective bargaining by government workers. Nelson Lichtenstein of UC Santa Barbara says that if Wisconsin succeeds in curtailing their bargaining power, it will send a strong message across the country.

Mr. LICHTENSTEIN: Unquestionably, if it happens in Wisconsin it'll be put on the agenda in Ohio, Pennsylvania, you know, every state where there is a collective bargain law for public employees and where there's a fiscal crisis.

ZARROLI: If that happens, many union leaders fear public sector unions could see their power erode just as it has throughout the labor movement as a whole.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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