A fascinating battle is brewing in the state of Wisconsin between the newly-elected Republican governor and thousands of public sector workers who are outraged over proposals to sharply reduce (or eliminate) the union’s right to collective bargain.

Should the governor, Scott Walker, get his way – and it looks like he may ultimately prevail – his measures would deliver a devastating, though perhaps not fatal, blow to the American labor movement, said Stephen Bronars, a labor economist at Welch Consulting in Washington D.C.

States across the country are cutting spending, reducing services and enacting mass layoffs in order to try to close huge budget deficits. They are also asking public employees to contribute more to their pension and health care funds.

But the governor of Wisconsin seeks to go beyond that by attacking the essential power of unions – their ability to collectively bargain over contracts governing wages and benefits, etc.

Walker's proposal would permit public worker unions to negotiate for salary increases, but not for such things as benefits or working conditions. Moreover, unions would have to convene a vote of membership every year to stay intact, and members could opt out of paying union dues.

“This is unprecedented,” Bronars stated. “However, the victory of Republicans in last year’s mid-term elections signals that much of the American public wants to reduce the cost of government. If Governor Walker triumphs in this dispute, Republicans in other states with GOP-dominated legislatures will be encouraged to take similar steps,”

Indeed, the governors of Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee are reportedly preparing their own anti-union campaigns (all three of those states have Republican governors).

“Generally speaking, workers have more bargaining power if they can bargain collectively,” Bronars noted. “But if the right to collectively bargain is totally removed, that would severely limit the power of the union.”

What surprises Bronars is that this battle is taking place in a very unlikely locale.

“Wisconsin has traditionally been a progressive, northern liberal Democratic state with a strong history of unionism,” he said,

Perhaps that is exactly why the issue has ignited such violent passions in Madison – thousands of angry, loud protesters have occupied the inside of the state legislature, many carrying placards with inflammatory remarks about Walker (comparing him to Adolf Hitler and Hosni Mubarak, for example).

Reportedly, the governor’s private residence has even been picketed.

So many teachers have called in sick that some schools were temporarily closed. In another bizarre side-story, pro-union Democratic legislators had fled the state, hoping their absence would delay, or perhaps indefinitely postpone, any vote on the governor’s proposals. (You have shut down the people's government, and that is not acceptable, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in scolding the wayward Democrats.)

The Wisconsin unions, in a gesture of weakness, have suggested that will accept the governor’s demand for paying more for pension benefits and health insurance coverage – but the right to collectively bargain remains sacrosanct. (Democratic politicians appear to support this compromise).
At least one Wisconsin Republican lawmaker has proposed a small compromise -- Sen. Dale Schultz said he would remove collective bargaining rights, but only for two years.

For the moment, Walker refuses to budge or compromise – he said he is willing to take this as long as it takes because in the end we're doing the right thing.”

The governor has complained that the collective bargaining process takes too much time and would interfere with the $1-billion in spending cuts he is planning to unveil next week.

It will never get to me because other than that one state senator, all the rest of the Republicans are firmly behind our proposal, Walker told MSNBC.

Wisconsin is facing a budget shortfall of about $137-million this year, but that figure is expected to mushroom to an enormous $3.6-billion by the middle of 2013.

Walker has warned that if the state legislature doesn’t approve his bill by the end of the week, he’ll be forced to lay off 1,500 state workers over the next four months.

However, as Bronars points out, the governor cannot cancel collective bargaining rights simply by an executive order -- such legislation has to be passed by state lawmakers, which is precisely why Democrats in Wisconsin have fled the state capitol.

Walker has insisted that despite the large number of protesters (and the heavy media coverage they have attracted), the majority of Wisconsin voters support his program.

He may be right. In fact, recent polls indicate that most Americans do not think public workers should even have a union.

Bronars suspects that support for unions might be at an all-time low.

“Keep in mind, we have been through a very tough recession in which many people in the private sector lost their jobs or have lost job security,” he said. “There might be little sympathy now for union workers in the public sector who are perceived by many to have job security and made fewer sacrifices than others have.”

Meanwhile, State workers across the nation have already agreed to a number of concessions, including furloughs and pay freezes – but the magnitude of the budget gaps are so large that these measures are not nearly enough.

Bronars indicates that it’s easy to see how this scenario plays out politically. The big national public sector unions -- including Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the National Education Association (NEA) – are huge contributors to the Democratic Party.

“They will not support the Republicans,” he said.

In turn, many Democratic lawmakers owe much to organized labor.

Part of this saga involves the long-term, multi-decade decline of union membership in the U.S. Ironically, public employees (who did not belong to unions until the late 1950s-early 1960s) now dominate the nation’s union movement.

“As far back as 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote that he didn’t think there was place for unions in public sector, due to potential conflicts of interest,” Bronars said.

Union membership in the private sector has steadily dwindled over the past sixty years, coincident with the demise of the auto and manufacturing sectors.

Bronars said the current imbroglio reminds him of another watershed moment in U.S. labor union history from three decades ago – when President Ronald Reagan (another incoming Republican) fired thousands of striking air traffic controllers for ignoring the President's order to return to work.

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), which represented about 13,000 workers, was decertified and dissolved by the Reagan Administration in 1981.

“Reagan’s action signaled a changing attitude towards unions, and showed how the pendulum was swinging against organized labor,” Bronars said.

While that was a landmark event in the history of U.S. labor unions, Bronars thinks the Wisconsin stalemate could have a much greater impact.

“The loss of collective bargaining rights would represent a huge setback for the labor movement,” he said. “It would also inspire other states dominated by the GOP to enact similar measures, thereby further reducing the influence of organized labor. State budgets and pension plans, in their current condition, are not sustainable, something needs to be done.”