Republicans who swept into power in state capitols this year with promises to cut spending and bolster the business climate now are beginning to usher in a new era of labor relations that could result in the largest reduction of power in decades for public employee unions.
But as massive public protests and legislative boycotts in Wisconsin have shown, the Republican charge can be fraught with risk and unpredictable turns as politicians try to transform campaign ideas into action.
The question GOP governors and lawmakers are now facing is exactly how far they can go without encountering a backlash. Do they merely extract more money from school teachers, prison guards, and office workers to help ease their states’ budget problems? Or do they go at the very core of union power by abolishing the workers’ right to bargain collectively? Do they try to impose changes by steamrolling the opposition, or by coming to the bargaining table?
“The consequences will be rolling forth for many, many years,” said James Gregory, director of Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington. “The battle lines have been drawn and will be replicated around the country. This is going to be very tough for unions and public sector employees.”
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In Wisconsin, new Republican Gov. Scott Walker is going for it all—the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees, plus sharp increases in their health care and pension payments. His plan advanced quickly to the Republican-led Senate, despite several days of protests that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol. Then Senate Democrats suddenly fled the state Feb. 17, bringing the legislative process to a halt.
Education at stake
As union supporters moved inside for a sixth straight day of protests at the Wisconsin Capitol, Gov. Scott Walker reiterated Feb. 20 that he wouldn’t compromise on the issue that had mobilized them, a bill that would eliminate most of public employees’ collective bargaining rights.
The party’s stand against balancing the state’s budget by cutting the pay, benefits, and collective bargaining rights of public workers—including educators—is the boldest action yet by Democrats to push back against last fall’s GOP wave.