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Union Power at Issue in Wisconsin Dispute

Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers sleep on the floor of the rotunda at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, at the start of the tenth day of protests, February 24, 2011
Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers sleep on the floor of the rotunda at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, at the start of the tenth day of protests, February 24, 2011

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In U.S. politics, all eyes are on the Midwest state of Wisconsin where a budget battle rages that could have a profound impact on the power of labor unions around the country.  The Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, wants to curb the collective bargaining power of unions representing state employees as part of a plan to balance the state budget.  Union members in Wisconsin are protesting the move and are drawing support from union activists around the country.

For now, Wisconsin is the epicenter of an intensifying national debate over whether states should be able to force unions to give up some of their collective bargaining rights in order to reduce the mounting cost of government.

Wisconsin’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, is demanding union concessions on collective bargaining power as part of a plan to balance the state budget.

"We are broke in this state because time and time again politicians of both political parties ran away from the tough decisions and punted them down the road (put off dealing with them) for another day," Walker said.

Thousands have protested the proposal in the state capital, Madison, and similar battles over the scope and power of union bargaining have cropped up in other states like Ohio, Indiana and New Jersey.

Related report by VOA's Kane Farabaugh

National labor leaders are taking note of the confrontation in Wisconsin, where Democrats in the state senate have fled to neighboring Illinois to deny Republicans a quorum for a vote on the governor’s proposal.

Richard Trumka is president of the nation’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million workers nationwide.

Trumka spoke on the CSPAN public affairs network.

"It is about weakening unions because having taken away collective bargaining rights does not do a single thing to help a budget deficit," Trumka said. "When you have a union and collective bargaining, you can work collectively to make those cuts."

Many Republicans around the country are cheering Governor Walker as a hero for insisting that unions give up some of their collective bargaining rights.

What happens to Walker in Wisconsin is being closely watched by other Republican governors pressing for union concessions in their states, including Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich.

Kasich argues it is essential for his state to reduce the obligations to state workers that include pension and health-care plans.  

"I am spending a lot of time talking to companies here that are being courted by other states," Kasich said. "If we keep losing jobs, we will not make it as a state."

Thousands of state workers have protested in Ohio as well, and the demonstrations are drawing national attention from union activists and members who fear victories by Republican governors at the state level would deal a severe setback to the power and influence of labor unions.

A retired truck driver and Teamsters Union member who gave his name as Michael spoke out on a CSPAN call-in program.

"All this kickback we keep getting about the unions nowadays, it seems like we are just dirty dogs," Michael said. "It looks to me like we need to do a little kicking back and show these folks that maybe we got a little bit of power left."

Labor experts say the battle in Wisconsin is serving as a wake-up call for unions around the country to stiffen their resolve in battles over their collective bargaining rights.

Professor Harley Shaiken is an expert on unions at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Wisconsin is serving as a galvanizing moment for labor," Shaiken said. "No union leader would have wished for this, but Wisconsin is causing many union leaders and members and others in the community to stand up against what they view as unfair treatment."

Although the battles in Wisconsin and other states are being cast as partisan, many states with Democratic governors are also facing daunting budget challenges and are demanding some concessions from unions, though not in the area of collective bargaining.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, has become a leader in the effort to demand concessions from unions as part of his effort to close a state funding gap.

Christie notes that Democratic governors in New York and California are demanding wage concessions from union workers.  Christie says it is time for political leaders to step up and make difficult decisions about budget cuts that they have long been unwilling to tackle.

"Leadership today in America today has to be about doing the big things and being courageous," Christie said. "Our country and our states are weighed down by an albatross of irresponsibility that we have foisted upon ourselves as leaders, and that you as citizens have permitted us to get away with."

Both sides in the dispute over union power will keep a close eye on public opinion.  A new Gallup poll found 61 percent of those asked would oppose a law in their state that restricted the collective bargaining power of unions.  But a Rasmussen survey found that 48 percent of likely voters support Governor Walker in the Wisconsin dispute, while 38 percent sided with the unions.

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