The stalemate in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states between Republican governors and organized labor is about much more than pay, benefits and collective bargaining.
Unions argue that their very existence is threatened by so-called right-to-work legislation that would make union membership optional for many workers.
Republican officials argue that limiting union strength not only helps keep down government costs, but can also help create new jobs.
At the Wisconsin state Capitol, where tens of thousands of people have been shouting and marching for almost two weeks now, most protesters believe the legislation being pushed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker has less to do with saving money than with breaking unions.
"I feel it's a total attack," says Joe Nigro, the national general secretary-treasurer of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association. "I see it as a national campaign."
Nigro says every union — in both the public and private sectors — is under attack. He says that while few are going as far and as fast as Walker is in taking on Wisconsin's unions, other Republican governors are preparing to follow Walker's lead.
In addition to eliminating many collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers, Walker's bill could significantly weaken Wisconsin's public employee unions because teachers, prison guards, nurses, social workers and other public employees would no longer be required to join their unions.
They would vote each year on whether to keep their union, and they would no longer have union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks.
Walker says that's a good thing for state employees.
"For some of our workers in the state, that's going to mean up to a thousand dollars that is no longer forceably taken out of their paycheck," he says. "That's real money. That's money that those households can use to help offset that pension contribution and that health care contribution. That's real money that helps the bottom line."
Walker's legislation would essentially make Wisconsin a right-to-work state for public employees. Indiana is already a right-to-work state for public employees, and Republicans there tried last week to make it right-to-work for the private sector, too.
There are similar proposals in Ohio, Michigan and other industrial states that are losing manufacturing jobs. Just as in Indiana, Republicans there argue that limiting unions will help attract new factories and jobs.
A Wall Street Journal analysis last week compared six upper Midwestern states that have strong union protections, with six right-to-work states in the Sun Belt.
It showed greater job losses and slower wage growth over the past decade in the pro-union states than in the right-to-work states.
But some economists question that comparison, saying there are stark differences between the economies of the industrial North and the more rural South, where wages were lower to begin with.
Laura Dresser is a labor economist with the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.
"You know, I think the best, rigorous research on the question of living standards in right-to-work verses non-right-to-work states shows a 3 percent wage loss for living in a right-to-work state — a wage penalty for being in a place that doesn't have unions," Dresser says.
As for bringing in new jobs, Dresser notes that there have been some big employers choosing to locate in right-to-work states for their cheaper labor costs — foreign car makers, for example, have opened plants in cities like Tupelo, Miss., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., but not in Flint, Mich., and Toledo, Ohio.
But Dresser says most businesses look at more than just labor costs.
"The broadest and strongest evidence suggests that employers are looking for good workers — that takes good schools. They're looking for good infrastructure — that takes money for roads and rails. They're looking for cities where they can have suppliers and relationships with other businesses, and all of those things tend to happen in non-right-to-work states."
In addition, the most significant job growth over the past decade has been in states with high immigration. Dresser says that includes both right-to-work states and strong union states, such as New York and California. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.