Collective Bargaining Curbs Spread Across The U.S.

May 24, 2011
Originally published on May 24, 2011 6:29 pm

Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker struck a nerve back in February with his bill to eliminate nearly all the collective bargaining rights of almost all public employees in the state.

Tens of thousands of people marched, chanted and protested for weeks. The law passed anyway, but it hasn't taken effect yet because it remains tied up in the courts.

In Indiana and Ohio, lawmakers advanced similar proposals despite similar outrage — and those are now law.

More quietly, several other states have curbed collective bargaining rights, too.

A Rocky Year

"It's a year that took us by surprise," says Jeanne Mejeur, who follows labor legislation for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

She says the number of bills introduced into state capitals this year seeking to restrict or eliminate collective bargaining rights of public workers is staggering — 820 in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

In past years, she says, there have rarely been more than 100 such proposals nationwide.

And there's been another unusual thing, she adds. "The breadth of the bills. Far-reaching, groundbreaking types of bills that we were seeing was quite different from anything we'd seen in the past."

Naomi Walker, director of state government relations for the AFL-CIO, says it's been an incredibly rough and rocky year for workers.

"The legislatures have been introducing bills that really attack the middle class and attack workers in ways that we have not seen in recent history," Walker says.

A Matter Of Perception

But where some see an attack on workers' rights, others see a new era of fiscal restraint.

"It's incredibly encouraging for organizations like ours," says Barney Keller, spokesman for the conservative group Club for Growth.

"Many Americans believe that record debt and record deficits just cannot be sustained anymore," Keller says. "Because of record debt and record deficits, they see teachers and firefighters and all other local things that impact them directly ... and they feel like they're getting the short end of the stick."

Labor leaders say many of these anti-union measures go far beyond cost-cutting and attack the very existence of unions.

But that may not be the case everywhere — take Nebraska. This week, lawmakers there are expected to pass changes to the state's collective bargaining system, worked out with the union. Jess Wolf, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, says the two sides reached a compromise, avoiding a bitter public fight.

"We don't tend to like to do those types of things in Nebraska. We don't tend to want to get into everybody's face and make major arguments," he says. "We tend to like to try to see if we can solve our differences, and that's sort of what took over in this particular case, as well."

Wolf says he hopes Nebraska can serve as a model of compromise for other states. But with recall election campaigns that are sure to be nasty in Wisconsin this summer and a bitterly partisan tone to the battles over collective bargaining rights in other states, that may be unlikely.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Right-to-work bills failed to pass in 13 states this year, but other anti-union proposals are moving forward, especially those targeting the collective bargaining rights of public employees. NPR's David Schaper has this update on labor legislation in state capitols around the country.

DAVID SCHAPER: Unidentified People: (Chanting) Kill the bill.

SCHAPER: Lawmakers in Indiana and Ohio advanced similar proposals despite similar outrage, and those are now law. And more quietly, several other states have curbed collective bargaining rights, too.

JEANNE MEJUER: It's a year that took us by surprise.

SCHAPER: In past years, she says, there have rarely been more than 100 such proposals nationwide. The other unusual thing...

MEJUER: The breadth of the bills: far-reaching, ground-breaking types of bills that we were seeing was quite different from anything we've seen in the past.

SCHAPER: Naomi Walker is director of state government relations for the AFL-CIO. And she says it's been an incredibly rough and rocky year for workers.

NAOMI WALKER: The legislatures have been introducing bills that really attack the middle class and attack workers in ways that we have not seen, you know, in recent history.

SCHAPER: But where some see an attack on workers' rights, others see a new era of fiscal restraint.

BARNEY KELLER: Well, it's incredibly encouraging for organizations like ours.

SCHAPER: Barney Keller is spokesman for the conservative group Club for Growth.

KELLER: Many Americans believe that record debt and record deficits just cannot be sustained anymore, and they see because of record debt and record deficits, they see teachers and firefighters and all other local things that impact them directly, and they feel this stuff at home. They feel like they're getting the short end of the stick.

SCHAPER: Labor leaders say many of these anti-union measures go far beyond cost-cutting and attack the very existence of unions. But that may not be the case everywhere. Take Nebraska.

JESS WOLF: I think we've reached a compromise.

SCHAPER: Jess Wolf is president of the Nebraska State Education Association. Lawmakers there are expected to pass, this week, changes to the state's collective bargaining system, worked out with the union at the table, avoiding, Wolf says, a bitter public fight.

WOLF: We don't tend to like to do those types of things in Nebraska. We don't tend to get into everybody's face and make major arguments. And we tend to like to try to see if we can solve our differences, and that's sort of what took over in this particular case, as well.

SCHAPER: David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.