Ariel Avgar is a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois.
Photo courtesy of the School of Labor and Employment Relations
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Ariel Avgar, a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois, is an expert on collective bargaining and workplace dispute resolution. He spoke with News Bureau business and law reporter Phil Ciciora about the national implications of the labor battle in Wisconsin.
How likely are we to see anti-union legislation spread to other parts of the U.S.?
Although it's still too early to tell, it is clear that union supporters and opponents across the country are carefully watching the events in Wisconsin unfold. The outcome of the battle over collective bargaining rights for public sector employees in Wisconsin will certainly set the stage for the strategies pursued by other states and unions.
Nevertheless, the diffusion of the legislative strategies pursued by Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio to other states may be slower than some are predicting. First, while union density in the private sector has declined dramatically over the past decades, density in the public sector has remained stable and stands at approximately 35 percent. So you shouldn't underestimate the strength that this slice of the labor movement has to push back if union opponents were to pursue a Wisconsin strategy in other states.
Second, there is tremendous variation in the collective bargaining climate across the country. States differ in terms of their overall legislative support for unions, both private and public. Union power and public support for collective bargaining are also not constant across different regions of the country. Although the Wisconsin fight is a legislative one, it will, in the end, be won or lost in the public square. In order for anti-union state level legislation to spread, it will require a particular climate that is likely to exist in some, but not all, of the states considering this type of strategy.
Finally, many states with an anti-union climate already have restrictive public sector collective bargaining laws or no governing laws at all. Thus, the power of the Wisconsin case may rest more on its symbolic significance for collective bargaining actors and institutions than on its ability to serve as a blueprint for legislative reform.
Most research shows that state employees are generally paid less than their private-sector counterparts, but public employees often have more generous pension and health-care benefits, which Republican lawmakers claim are at the root states' long-term budget problems. Other research has shown state budgets have been hurt more by the housing crash than by bloated public-worker payrolls. Is it right for politicians to pit public employees and public employee unions against ordinary taxpayers?
The current framing of the debate in the popular press is flawed and overly narrow in a number of respects.
It's clear that Wisconsin's budgetary challenges, like those of other states, go well beyond the costs associated with public employee wages and benefits. By focusing so singularly on public sector collective bargaining rights, state leaders narrow the scope of the conversation about how to deal with complex, persistent and real problems.
The current framing of the debate by both opponents and proponents of unions ignores the complexities and nuances inherent to collective bargaining in both the public and private sectors. The focus, thus far, has been almost entirely on the potential monetary costs associated with unions.
Volumes of industrial relations research, however, documents a much less simplistic scorecard. It's true - unions can have a positive effect on wages and benefits compared to their non-union counterparts, although the size of this effect is not larger than the wage differential in the private sector. But unions and collective bargaining outcomes have a far broader reach than the wage effect alone.
For example, unions have been consistently shown to reduce employee turnover, increase productivity and provide for institutionalized workforce input, all of which benefit employers. Furthermore, where the relationship between the union and management is a positive one, collective bargaining has been shown to complement, not constrain, workplace innovation.
One could argue that by solely focusing on the wage and benefit effects of unions throughout this debate, states risk losing a powerful vehicle through which to actually address many of the economic and social challenges they face.
However this situation is resolved, what does this portend for the future of labor?
No matter how things unfold in Wisconsin, these events will have a long-lasting effect on the labor movement in the United States. The key question is whether this will end up weakening or strengthening an already bruised labor movement.
Defeat in Wisconsin could have a powerful and possibly devastating effect on labor's efforts to revitalize and regain its footing. The viability of collective bargaining as an institution is, to a large extent, dependent on employee and public perceptions and support. Given the coverage and attention given to the Wisconsin efforts to constrain public sector collective bargaining rights, a loss on this front could have a lasting negative symbolic effect on the perception of unions held by employees (potential union members) and the public more generally.
In 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan famously fired federal employees belonging to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization for violating the no-strike clause in their contract. Although this action formally affected the striking employees, its consequences had a lasting and pronounced effect on the labor movement for years. The events in Wisconsin could end up playing out in a similar fashion.
There is, however, the possibility that the standoff in Wisconsin will play out in a fundamentally different manner. This very public fight over collective bargaining rights could serve to galvanize a labor movement in search of a rare, but much needed, win. A victory, even a partial one, could provide labor with a platform to increase its hold in the private and public sectors.
While the jury is still out on which of these scenarios is more likely, unions and collective bargaining have already received more public attention than they have in decades. Unions and their role in society are, for now, a hot topic.