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As Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, unions do battle, what’s at stake?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and unionized public employees have squared off in a battle that mixes economics and politics with labor and management rights. Similar battles have spread to Indiana and Ohio. Here is a primer to understanding the crisis sweeping parts of the Midwest.

What is happening in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed charging public employees more for their health insurance and pension benefits, setting off a firestorm of demonstrations, now in their second week. It also prompted all Democratic senators to flee the state, in effect blocking any action on the proposals. As part of the package, Walker also called for eliminating the right of unionized government workers to bargain collectively. Ohio and several other states with new Republican governors and legislatures are considering similar measures as a way to solve budget woes.

Why are the governments proposing the changes?

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Walker argued that Wisconsin was broke and needed to pass some of the costs of the benefits back to its employees. Unions have said they are willing to talk, but Walker insists there is no point in such bargaining since he has nothing to put on the table. Eliminating collective bargaining rights would allow all levels of government some flexibility in coping with rising health and pension costs without having to deal with the unions and without having to impose new taxes, he has said.

What are public employee unions and when did they begin?

Unions representing government workers, ranging from teachers to clerks to scientists, date from the 1930s as opposed to private-sector unions, which go back to before the 1880s. Though far younger, public employee unions are far larger today, a testament to the growth of government over the years and to the decline of unionization in the private sector as recession and technology have reshaped the manufacturing sector.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate for public-sector workers in 2010 was 36.2%, compared with 6.9% in the private sector. Overall, just 11.9% of the workforce was unionized, a sharp drop from the 19th century.

What is the difference between unionization and civil service?

Civil service was a 19th century reform designed to lessen political patronage and to set performance standards for most government jobs. It prevents many kinds of discrimination, but it does not include the right to collectively bargain for salary, benefits or work rules such as paid time off for sickness.

What are collective bargaining rights?

Workers organize themselves into unions, which then negotiate with their employers for contracts that cover pay, benefits and work rules. This is true whether it is the private or public sector. In the public sector, the first unions included one founded in 1932 in Wisconsin that enacted the right to bargain collectively in 1959.

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What is the difference between public and private employees?

One big difference is the role of government, which theoretically serves as an impartial referee between employers and employees in the private sector. Under existing laws, the government can define roles, protect workers’ rights to organize and bargain, monitor representational elections and impose fines for infractions by either side. The process is theoretically free of politics, but at some point in many labor disputes, each side accuses the government of favoring the other.

What happens in the public sector?

Government is in a special position because it is both referee and employer; it can make laws that favor its management role over teachers, nurses and all government workers. Each state can decide its own laws, but in many states, employees, particularly police and fire, are barred from striking, because the state considers such protection too important to be interrupted. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a staunch union supporter for the private sector, opposed collective bargaining and the right to strike for federal employees.

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How have public employee unions responded?

Because they are especially dependent on government, public employee unions have become major league players in the electoral scene. Unions are a mainstay of the Democratic Party, supplying campaign workers and hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign financing to candidates in 2010 alone. By having some input in the political process, unions have tried to influence the kinds of laws that can determine their own working conditions in a way that is different than in the private sector.

Conservatives argue that public employee unions used that electoral power to win lucrative benefits and pensions that ultimately have to be funded by private taxpayers, who often do not have benefits as lucrative. Unions reply that they are being made scapegoats for government’s inability to manage their own financial house and their fear of taxing the rich.

Are public employee unions always affiliated with Democrats?

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No. There have been more conservative unions that have supported GOP candidates, but the major national unions, AFSCME, SEIU and NEA, generally line up with Democrats.

How has the general public responded?

Recent polls show that Americans would oppose a law taking away bargaining rights from public employees, but they also oppose tax hikes to balance budgets. According to a USA Today/Gallup Poll released Wednesday, 61% said they would oppose a law similar to Wisconsin’s in their state, while 33% would favor one. The survey of 1,000 adults also found that 71% opposed increasing sales, income or other taxes while 27% favored the hikes. A majority, 53%, opposed reducing pay or benefits for government workers while 44% said they were in favor. Americans split evenly over reducing programs, with 48% opposed and 47% in favor. There is a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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