This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

For nearly two weeks, thousands of union members and supporters have been protesting in Wisconsin's state capital, Madison, where Governor Scott Walker is seeking to strip most bargaining rights from the state's public-employee unions.

Walker's efforts have stalled so far because 14 Democratic senators have left the state, denying the Senate the quorum needed to enact Walker's proposals. Walker has stood firm, saying that without the change he seeks, he'll have to lay off 1,500 state workers.

The events in Wisconsin are the most extreme example of battles unfolding across the country between government unions and financially strapped state and local governments.

For some perspective on the issue, we turn to Steven Greenhouse, the labor and workforce reporter for the New York Times. He's covered the events in Madison and union conflicts elsewhere. He's also the author of the book "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker." Greenhouse spoke this morning with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Steven Greenhouse, welcome to FRESH AIR. There's a sense that what we're seeing in Wisconsin is a battle being joined that's been coming for quite some time. To what extent is this conflict representative of what's going on, nationally, between fiscally stressed officials and public-employee unions?

Mr. STEVEN GREENHOUSE (Labor and Workforce Correspondent, New York Times; Author, "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker"): There are two levels of fights going on in Wisconsin. One is trying to scale back their, the public employees' wages and benefits, and that we are really seeing across the country - literally from California and Oregon to New York and Maryland and Virginia and Florida. That's a nationwide fight because so many states have colossal deficits, you know, caused, you know, in large part by the big recession. And they're trying to figure out: how do we reduce our deficits? We try to reduce wages and benefits for our employees.

The second level is, in Wisconsin, the governor there is really trying to cripple the public-employees' unions, and that is not a nationwide fight. That's a fight going on in certain states, where there really is Republican control. And they see this as a way, you know, weakening unions is a way both to weaken unions at the bargaining table and secondly to weaken unions' help of Democratic candidates in elections.

So, you know - so the Republicans, having seen labor unions, you know, greatly help the Democrats in last November's elections, are eager to try to weaken unions' ability to help Democrats in future elections.

DAVIES: Now, just for context, there's a perception, at least among some, that public employees, or at least unionized public employees, have a much better deal than similarly skilled workers just about anywhere else in the economy. Is that true?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: The studies I've read and some articles in my newspaper say that, basically, public employees earn more or less the same as private-sector employees.

There are studies by conservative think-tanks saying that when you include benefits, public employees earn somewhat more than private-sector employees. There are studies by various, you know, liberal professors and liberal think-tanks, saying that public-sector employees earn four to nine percent less.

There's an excellent study by the - sponsored by the bipartisan, nonpartisan Center for State and Local Government Excellence that says that public employees generally earn four percent less than private-sector employees.

Also, I should note, Dave, that, you know, there'll be studies showing that public-sector employees generally earn more. But when you think that public-sector employees generally have a much higher level of education than private-sector employees - like in Wisconsin, 60 percent of public-sector employees have college educations, versus just 20 percent for the private sector. So that, on a certain level, explain why public-sector employees earn more, and generally, public-sector employees have much more longevity in their jobs.

You know, teachers, policemen, firefighters, they often stay 15, 20, 25, 30 years on the job. So they generally develop more seniority, more experience, and therefore, they are also paid more.

DAVIES: So maybe not such a clear picture, at least on wages and salaries. Is it fair to say that benefit packages in general are more generous for public employees - or, unionized public employees?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Generally, yes. Dave, generally yes. Their benefit packages are better. I did a story a few weeks ago about cities and states trying to pare back, scale back, fairly generous health benefits for retirees.

And people I spoke to at the National Governance Association and the National League of Cities said, you know, 20 years ago, it was clear that wages for public-sector workers were considerably lower. So how did we compensate for that? We compensated for that by giving them better health and pension benefits. Now, their wages have sort of caught up, but there's much more pressure to hold down their health and pension benefits.

I wrote a story the other day basically saying that, you know, their overall compensation, wages and benefits, are about the same as for private-sector employees.

DAVIES: Now, those of us who follow the events in Wisconsin know that the governor, Scott Walker, wants to restrict collective bargaining rights for public-employee unions there. What exactly is he asking for?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: The governor is asking to limit collective bargaining, you know - for the state's teachers, the state's sanitation workers, for the state's, you know, nurses and public hospitals. He wants to limit their negotiation to just one issue: basic wages.

So that means the unions could not bargain over things like workloads or vacations or overtime or health coverage. And he would further limit, you know, that, the bargaining over wages so that unions could never get raises above the consumer price index, unless - in the city or the state, if they - you know, if inflation's running at three percent, and the city agrees to a raise of four percent, more than the consumer price index, then that would have to go to a public referendum. And I think the chances are extremely slim of a public referendum ever approving a raise higher than the consumer price index.

So basically, he's telling unions: You can only bargain over one thing, and you're always going to disappoint your members because you'll never, ever be able to get more than the consumer price index in raises.

And coupled to what the governor is doing, there are several steps to weaken unions. Every single year, members - union members would vote on whether to decertify, to quit their union.

And I think because the union's role would be so, so limited, and it would have so little power in bargaining, you know, it's - there's a very good chance that many public-sector workers would vote to quit their union.

Also, the government would allow them to stop paying union dues, and I think, again, because unions would have so little power, so little role, because of what the governor wants, many union members would say: Why in the world should I continue paying union dues?

And I think, you know, this is, in many ways, designed to weaken unions, as I said, both at the bargaining table and in politics.

DAVIES: And just to be clear, on benefits, were this to be enacted, a union would have no say on what health plan or retirement options their employees might have. That would be at the discretion of their public employer.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: That's correct. As they say in the business, these decisions would be unilateral by management. You know, and in this way, management represents the taxpayers. But the governors and the mayors and the school district superintendents could, henceforth, if this is enacted, could basically dictate what's going to happen in the future in pensions and what's going to happen in the future in health coverage and how many days' vacation one has and what the school day is and when people work to, and the rules for transfers and what one's workload are, and there won't be a union - you know, the union would not be allowed to really negotiate any of this.

DAVIES: Now, one of the things we've seen in Wisconsin is that the unions have made financial concessions. They said that they will contribute more to their pensions and take wage cuts, which arguably would help Governor Walker address the budget problem, which he says is really driving this.

If he can get the concessions without destroying collective bargaining, why doesn't he just accept the money?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: That's an excellent question. That's what many people in Wisconsin are asking. The governor says that Wisconsin faces a $3.6 billion budget deficit over the next two years, and he asks for significant economic concessions from the workers.

So the workers basically agreed to concessions that will reduce their take-home pay by seven percent, which is a whole lot. They agreed to start paying 5.8 percent of their salaries towards their pensions, and they agreed to double their contribution for their health coverage -from six percent of the cost to 12 percent of the cost, and together, that comes to about seven, eight percent of salary for workers.

And that's a major concession, and everyone says that will make a real dent in reducing the deficit. So people ask the governor: Well, the unions have sort of met you halfway. Why don't you meet them halfway by dropping your demands to essentially, you know, gut collective bargaining rights?

And he says: We have to get rid of bargaining rights, weaken bargaining rights because we need to solve our budget problems long-term, and he asserts that only by weakening collective bargaining rights can they, in future years with future budgets, you know, get what they need in terms of reducing the deficits.

Now, union advocates and union leaders will say there are many states with serious budget deficits, even worse deficits than Wisconsin, that aren't seeking to weaken or gut or eliminate collective bargaining. The Republican governors in Michigan and Pennsylvania face serious budget deficits, but they're not trying to eliminate collective bargaining rights.

And Democratic governors, like Andrew Cuomo in New York and Jerry Brown in California and John Kitzhaber in Oregon, they have huge budget problems. They have contentious unions. But they're also not pushing to get rid of collective bargaining because they're confident that they could reason with the unions and persuade unions to do what's necessary to help balance their budgets.

DAVIES: Now, one of the things that unions and their supporters say is that union contracts aren't simply about economic stuff. It's about protecting workers on the job site from vindictive treatment by employers, favoritism, discrimination. And the governor says: Well, you have civil service protection, which really ensures those rights anyway. Does he have a point?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes and no. You know, Wisconsin is one of the nation's strongest civil service laws. Unlike the civil service laws in many states, Wisconsin civil service law bars the state from firing anyone except for just cause. And that's a pretty strong standard.

The civil service law does not apply to counties, cities and school districts. So one thing the unions protest is, well, you know, the governor says, well, having a union contract isn't so important, we have the civil service laws. But those laws really only apply on the state level and provide very few protections at the local level.

Second, you know, if you get fired for - because, you think, of favoritism or nepotism, and you have a union contract, and you want to challenge it, you know, the union will really go to bat for you generally. It might bring in an arbitrator, and there's a good chance you can get that overturned if you're really fired for, you know, not for just cause.

But if you're - if there's no union contract, and you want to appeal to, you know, the state Employee Relations Board, generally you don't have a lawyer going to bat for you. In Wisconsin, the state Employee Relations Board just has 22 people on its staff, and I can imagine a situation where hundreds, or even thousands, of workers might bring appeals saying I was suspended improperly, or I was demoted improperly, I was fired improperly, and that could easily overload this board.

Moreover, you know, this board will be run by appointees of the governor, and union leaders fear, many workers fear, that they're not going to get a fair shake, that, you know, this board is going to very often favor management's point of view.

So again, many workers say they're in much better shape against arbitrary treatment, against favoritism, against nepotism, when they have a union contract than with civil service laws.


DAVIES: I've covered a few public-employee labor battles in my own years as a newspaper reporter. And while it's clearly true that workers at the workplace have far less protection and are probably not going to get as good an economic deal, I have to say there are times when I have heard managers make a somewhat convincing case that - say, for example, someone, a city, a government, wants to reorganize its procurement or its information technology or fleet management.

Let's say you've got, you know, inefficiently run fleet management -garages in many, many different departments, and you want to centralize it, bringing it in to one department. To do that, you have to transfer a lot of workers from one department to another, change their work assignments, alter their schedules. Those are all conditions of work which the union has a say in and will oppose, in part because the savings might result in fewer jobs. And you just can't get it done.

Managers say as long as the union controls the shop floor, our hands are tied, and we can't rearrange things. We can't create efficiencies that taxpayers deserve.

Do you - I mean, you - I'm sure you've heard these things. Do you think they have a point?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: I think, you know, many times, unions really get in the way. Unions' role are to protect the interest of their members. And sometimes, perhaps often, those interests disagree with those of management. In the private sector, they'll disagree - you know, their interests will clash with those of companies and increasing profits, and in the public sector, if a mayor says well, we really want to consolidate these two or three municipal garages to save money and create more efficiencies, I can imagine unions saying: That stinks. That will cause, you know, five of our people to be laid off.

And I think in this day and age, when unions are really under fire, both in the private sector and the public sector, I think union leaders are realizing that: Hey, maybe we have to become more flexible. Hey, maybe we have to become more understanding of what the needs of mayors are, of governors are.

And some are getting the message, but some, I think, are still resisting very, very much because their members say: You know, don't do anything that might lead to layoffs.

DAVIES: This is a big fight, and there are plenty of people involved who aren't locals in Wisconsin. Who are some of the outside players that are weighing in on this battle, either - both in Wisconsin and nationally?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: There are many people from out of state who have gotten involved in this fight. You know, Governor Walker has repeatedly said, you know, there are all these out-of-state union leaders, union activists here. Why are they meddling? We don't really need them.

And the union people say: Wait a second. You know, the Koch brothers, the billionaire brothers, gave $43,000 to your campaign. They've given lots of money to the Republican Party. You know, you're saying union leaders can't come in from out of state, shouldn't come in from out of state to show solidarity with their union brothers and sisters, whereas you're taking large amounts of money from out-of-state billionaires.

So as I've said, the stakes are very big on both sides. You know, Karl Rove has said to Republicans around the country: It's important to try to weaken public-sector unions because they're a pillar of the Democratic Party. To the extent Republicans can weaken public-sector unions, that will really help Republicans at the polls and really hurt Democrats.

So clearly, Republicans around the country, you know, see electoral benefits here, but also, you know, many governors, you know, whatever the party, who are eager to balance their budgets, you know, I think they realize that if Governor Walker gets his way, that will put unions on the defensive, might force unions to be more reasonable in negotiations.

I had a very good interview the other day with an esteemed professor at MIT, Tom Kochan, who said: You know, the unions, public-sector unions have sometimes dug in too much. And they've dug in so much that sometimes, it's turned the public against them.

And public-sector unions have to recognize reality more. They have to be more willing to compromise on things like, you know, consolidating operations to save state money. They need to compromise, maybe, on doing more to help hold down health coverage because that will not only improve the image of unions in the public's eye, but it might forestall future governors from trying to take away their bargaining rights altogether.

DAVIES: I thought we should talk just a moment about the pension issue. You know, there are so many public-employee pension funds in trouble across the country. I mean, their unfunded liabilities are high, meaning essentially that if you compare what the cost would be of them simply paying the benefits they owed to the employees and retirees they have, compare that to the assets in the fund, the assets don't nearly cover the cost.

To what extent would eliminating collective bargaining solve the pension problem?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: That's a good question. In some states, unions are allowed to bargain over pensions. In other states, they aren't allowed to bargain over pensions. In many states, even when you're allowed to bargain over pensions, under constitutional law, contractual law, you can't touch the pensions of people who are already retired, and you can't even touch the pensions of, you know, current workers under the notion that they took their jobs with a contractual promise that they would receive pensions of X and that to change that in midstream after they've been hired would violate their contract.

But in other cities and states, and I hope I'm not being too confusing here, governments, mayors, are allowed to change pensions for current employees.

Now, stepping back, generally, governors, mayors, school districts, are trying very hard to make pensions less generous for new workers, for future hires, because they have an absolute right to do that. And they're also often pressuring unions to get current employees to contribute more to their pensions to reduce the burden for the state.

DAVIES: You know, as we speak on March 1st here, the sides seem really dug in. The unions are determined to resist this effort by Governor Walker. He's saying he'll lay off people if he can't get the changes he needs. How do you see this playing out?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: It's very unclear, Dave, how this will play out. The governor is really ratcheting up the pressure against the unions and against the 14 Democratic state senators who have decamped to Illinois to prevent the state Senate from voting on this, to deny a quorum.

So the governor is saying: Look, union leaders, look, Democratic senators, I'm going to lay off several thousand people because you're not giving me the ability to cut my budget, to trim my budget the way I would like.

So he's, in ways, trying to turn the two, three, four, 5,000 people threatened with layoffs against their union. He's trying to turn them against the Democrats.

The Democrats are saying, the unions are saying: We don't want these people laid off. That's the last thing in the world we want. So Governor Walker, why don't you just compromise?

The union leaders will say: We've already agreed to a huge concession, to an essential seven, eight percent cut in take-home pay on pensions and health coverage. So why don't you meet us halfway, and in that way, they maintain, we could avoid any of these layoffs.


DAVIES: You know, one of the things that occurred to me as I've followed what's happening in Wisconsin, is that - is that the call for the end of collective bargaining, particularly for state and local officials, reminds me a little bit of baseball owners in collective bargaining with players, where they're really trying to save themselves from their own mistakes. And what I mean is, if you have collective bargaining, you can always say no. You can say I can't afford that pension. I can't afford that health care. I can't afford that wage plan. I need changes in work rules and conditions. Is Governor Walker, here, trying to foreclose the possibility that state and local officials will negotiate bad deals for their taxpayers?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes. Governor Walker basically wants to take the tools out of the hands of mayors, local governments, school districts, to prevent them from ever granting wages or benefits that are too generous to unions. Because, you know, one way he does that is saying, you know, if you offer a raise higher than the inflation rate, that has to go to public referendum so don't even bother.

Behind this there's a lot of politics. On the one hand, it is true that many unions have spent hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars to help elect mayors, school board presidents, they've scratched that back, and then these mayors or school board presidents or county officials or city councilmen will then be nice to the unions in labor negotiations and in ways have been too generous. So, you know, there's been some unfortunate politics there.

I think what's happening now on the Republican side is some Republican governors and, you know, even some Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo say we face these budget crises. And I think the Republicans say I can make a lot of - many Republicans believe they can make a lot of political hay with their rank and file, and especially with Tea Party folks, by really kicking and beating up the public sector unions, because the public sector unions have become public enemy number one for many, many conservatives nowadays. And I think that Governor Walker sees that it's just great great politics for him to squeeze the public sector unions.

DAVIES: There's a huge hearts and minds battle here. I mean, you know, the partisans of unions say that, you know, Scott Walker looks like a bully who has no concern for working people. People on the other side say the unions look like, you know, greedy special interests. Who is winning the public relations battle? Can you tell?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: It's hard to know. Governor Walker cites certain polls saying, you know, majority of people support me. And yesterday I read a poll in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel saying that if one were to rerun the gubernatorial election in Wisconsin again, Wisconsin voters now say they would elect the Democrat rather than Scott Walker. That seems pretty damning to me. My newspaper, The New York Times, has a front-page piece today, based on a recent poll, that shows the American public overwhelmingly opposes the notion of taking away collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. That was 60 percent to 33 percent. Democrats overwhelmingly believe that. Independents overwhelmingly believe that. Republicans, though, support taking away collective bargaining rights, but not by a huge majority.

Another surprising result for me was that in the poll, you know, far more people opposed reducing wages and benefits for public sector worker than for cutting them. And a lot of people said they would prefer, you know, 40 percent of people responding said they would prefer to pay increased taxes than to decrease the benefits for public employees.

So again, a lot of these states have Republican governors and many Republican governors have taken the "read my lips" pledge, I will never raise taxes. They know that if they do they're going to anger their conservative base, so they are much more eager to try to wrest concessions from public sector unions than to increase taxes. So the stakes, if the unions win in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, that will really embolden them. I think that will clearly discourage, you know, governors elsewhere from trying to cripple collective bargaining rights. If the unions lose, I think it will really hurt the Democrats in elections in those states and maybe in other states. If Governor Walker, if Governor Kasich win on this, I think it will encourage governors in other states to do likewise. It will really cow unions in many ways.

I think one question mark in all this is: unions are so invigorated, they feel that maybe if they even lose these fights in Wisconsin and Ohio, their people, their supporters - and not just union members but, you know, liberal church people and Hispanic groups and African-American groups - are going to be so angry and so jazzed up that at the polls in 2012, they hope, they believe they might be able to swamp the Republicans in various states.

DAVIES: I want to ask you one more question. You know, I've covered a lot of public employee labor disputes over the years, and I find it a very tough challenge because I want to figure out what's fair. And it seems to me that, of course people who work hard deserve fair wages and secure retirements and decent health care. On the other hand, it costs money. And particularly, if you're looking at a, you know, a city or a state that might have a declining tax budget and limited resources, you have to think of what's fair for taxpayers as well. Both sides have horror stories to tell about the other. They're often hard to get to the bottom of. And it is a very tough, challenging reporting assignment, it seems to me. And I'm wondering how you've found that over the years. How do you figure out what's fair?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: It's very hard to know what's fair. As I was saying earlier, you know, sometimes unions help elect the people who, you know, who sit on the other side of the table bargaining with them. And I think people could say there's an odor to that, that's not a good thing. And I think it's important, it's extremely important that governors, mayors, school board presidents don't give away the store. I mean they, it's important that they maintain fiscal integrity, that they don't run up big deficits.

On the other hand, public sector workers have to, you know, feed their families. You know, you want to make sure that public sector jobs pay enough and provide good enough benefits that you attract top-notch people.

One big issue is: are pensions too generous? It's very hard to know what's fair. And this whole dispute, Dave, has become so infected and inflamed with partisan rhetoric. You know, the Koch brothers, the billionaire brothers have really, you know, given lots of money to Scott Walker and they are really, you know, fueling the conservative fight to weaken public sector unions. The Democratic Party is really backing the unions here because one, I think they really believe in collective bargaining. And two, they realize that if the unions are weakened, it will jeopardize the future of the Democratic Party.

DAVIES: Well, Steven Greenhouse, I know it's a really busy time for you. Thanks so much for making some time for us.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: My pleasure. Great to be here.

GROSS: Steven Greenhouse spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Greenhouse covers workplace and labor issues for The New York Times.

Coming up, we listen back to an interview with Suze Rotolo about the four years Bob Dylan was her boyfriend and about the photo she appeared in with Dylan that was on the cover of his 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." Suze Rotolo died Friday at the age of 67.

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