Changing Gears: Region is epicenter for fight over union power
The Midwest is the birthplace of the modern industrial union. United Auto Workers formed in Detroit. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing many government workers, got its start in Madison, Wisconsin.
Now, Madison and other Midwest cities are at the center of the fight over public employee unions. Big protests are planned for Tuesday in state capitals. Dan Bobkoff of the Changing Gears team stepped back to provide some context and explore what these events mean for the future of the industrial Midwest:
The Midwest is the birthplace of the modern industrial union. The United Auto Workers formed in Detroit. AFSCME, the union representing many government workers, got its start in Madison, Wisconsin. Now, Madison and other Midwest cities have become the center of the fight over public employee unions. Big protests are planned Tuesday in state capitals.
In both Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican-led legislatures are pushing bills that would strip unions of much of their negotiating power. Wisconsin teacher Lisa Schmelz told a crowd Sunday that this is not about public workers taking concessions. They’ve already agreed to the eight percent cut in pay and benefits. “I have paid for health insurance in a previous occupation, and I’m willing to pay for it again,” she said. “But I’m not willing to give up collective bargaining!”
Republican Governor Scott Walker’s plan would strip most public employees of collective bargaining on everything but pay. That means when it comes to health benefits or work conditions or anything else up for discussion, power would shift from unions to management. A majority of workers would also have to re-authorize the union every year and it would be harder for unions to collect dues. That’s what the protesters consider union-busting.
Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich is pushing a similar bill that would kill collective bargaining for all state employees, and limit it for local workers. Rob Scott of the Dayton Tea Party said it’s about fairness.
“There’s some public sector jobs, they only pay ten percent of their healthcare. In the private sector, there are some people paying 40%, 50%. We’re just asking for a little bit of give,” Scott said.
That resentment of public sector benefits is one reason leaders have more political capital to try to weaken unions.
Gary Chaison is a labor relations professor at Clark University. He says resentment has turned a taxpayer revolt into an anti-union revolt in the Midwest.
“Public sector workers didn’t have to worry about their operations being closed, seemed to have guaranteed jobs, and also were exerting political influence in the election process, and as a result, elected officials beholden to them,” he said.
And, there’s another factor. Union membership in this country is dwindling.
Nationally, 36 percent of public employees are union members. That’s far more than in the private sector where under seven percent are in a union. But those percentages vary wildly at the state level. Our region is a public union stronghold. According to Professor Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University, nearly half the public sector workers in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio are organized. Compare that to a state like North Carolina where it’s under 10 percent.
Research economist Donald Grimes of the University of Michigan found some surprising data to fuel the debate. He looked at average compensation for private and public workers from 2000 to 2009 and found that, yes, government salaries rose 10% more than those of private workers.
“But it’s not particularly pronounced for Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Indiana, at least in terms of Great Lakes states,” Grimes said. “Their wages and benefits have not gone up that much.”
So, the states that are ground zero for this battle over unions and compensation… buck the national trend. Private sector salaries actually rose more in Wisconsin than government pay. In Ohio, there wasn’t much difference between public and private compensation over that period. One caveat, these numbers may not include public sector promises like pensions that have been kicked down the road. And, states that added government workers can skew the numbers.
But for now, this fight has reunited a fractured labor movement. The Teamsters and the AFL-CIO are talking again after parting ways in 2005. But this unified front is in a battle for survival. If Wisconsin, Ohio, or any state passes limits on collective bargaining, anti-union legislation could sweep the nation. And, that could forever change Midwest power and politics.
Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between WBEZ Chicago, Michigan Radio, and Ideastream Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.