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A national poll shows about 60% of Americans oppose efforts to weaken collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. Understanding the pros and cons of collective bargaining, and how battles over state budgets could influence future rights.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Ohio state senators are set to vote this week on a bill that would curtail collective bargaining for public employees. Ohio is the latest state to reexamine negotiating rights in light of major budget deficits. Today, we're going to take a look at this renewed debate over collective bargaining. Joining me here in the studio, Mary Kay Henry, she is president of the Service Employees International Union, Phil Kerpen with Americans for Prosperity and Steve Greenhouse of The New York Times. Joining us from the Disney Radio studios in Florida, Cornell University labor studies professor, Richard Hurd. And a little later in the hour, we'll be taking your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us an e-mail. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
PROF. RICHARD HURDGood morning.
MR. STEVE GREENHOUSEGood morning.
MR. PHIL KERPENGood morning.
REHMSteve Greenhouse, if I could start with you, why do you see this renewed debate over collective bargaining rights now?
GREENHOUSEI think it's largely because of two factors. One, many states and cities face huge deficits caused by the recession and the lack of tax revenues. Then we have, you know, Republicans in many states rule to power in the November elections. And many of these new Republican governors and many Republican lawmakers -- having a majority in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, Indiana -- they see it as an opportune time to go after unions. And they're doing it not just in one way but in two ways. They're trying to win major concessions on wages and benefits. And, secondly -- and most notably in Wisconsin -- they're trying to basically cripple the collective bargaining rights of the unions there.
GREENHOUSEAnd in Wisconsin, the major public employees unions -- you know, the teachers union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- say Gov. Walker, Scott Walker in Wisconsin has asked for two giant loaves. One, these major, major concessions where the workers would pay more towards their pensions and towards their health coverage -- and the unions have agreed to that, and that translates into a 7 or 8 percent cut in take-home pay. That's after they've already experienced a two-year wage freeze. And they say, that's plenty -- we're giving him plenty, Gov. Walker. And he continues to insist on legislation that would essentially take away their collective bargaining rights.
GREENHOUSEAnd he says he needs that not just to solve the fiscal problems this year but to solve fiscal problems in other years. The unions say, wait a second, we've given you humongous concessions on pensions and health coverage. We've given you a full loaf. And why do you still need the other one? You're clearly trying to weaken the unions as a way of, they say, political payback because unions are so important to the Democrats.
REHMSteve Greenhouse, he is New York Times labor and workplace reporter. He's author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker." Turning to you, Richard Hurd, explain to us a little bit about what collective bargaining actually is. How far back does it go?
HURDWell, collective bargaining is a process that actually provides a form of democracy in the workplace because it gives the workers an opportunity to select a representative to represent them in talks with management to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment. In terms of how far back it goes, back in the early 1900s, postal workers got the right to unionize. There was the -- and bargain -- the first group of workers nationally that had that right.
HURDBy 1935, we had, in addition to postal workers, we had railroad workers and the whole private sector or most of the private sector. But we didn't have public sector bargaining rights for other than postal workers until the 1959 -- in Wisconsin, the first law that was passed. In 1962, President Kennedy issued an executive order that gave federal workers the right to unionize.
REHMThat's kind of ironic, isn't it, that Wisconsin became the first state to offer collective bargaining to public employees?
HURDYes. It is sort of an interesting historical fact that here it is, the first state that's really been involved in this frontal attack on collective bargaining rights, but other states followed. And now the majority of the states offer collective bargaining rights to their public employees. Most public sector workers do have the right to bargain. And, for the first time since the rights were established back about 50 years, we're starting to see some efforts to retrench, to move back away from giving those workers that democratic voice in the workplace.
REHMAnd how many states currently allow collective bargaining?
HURDAbout 80 percent of states allow some form of collective bargaining. Some of those, it's a limited group of workers that have the right to bargain. But about half of the states have comprehensive coverage where all of the public sector workers in the state, at the local and the state government level, have bargaining rights. And so about half the states, complete bargaining rights. A little bit more than a quarter of the states, you have fairly comprehensive coverage with large groups of workers in the public sector bargaining. And then a small number of states, mostly states that tend to be viewed as more conservative politically, have limited or no bargaining rights for public sector workers.
REHMIs it accurate to say that nine of the 10 states with the lowest percentage of public employees eligible for collective bargaining are actually in the south?
HURDYes. South Carolina, North Carolina and so on.
REHMAll right. That's Richard Hurd, he's professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. Mary Kay Henry, why do workers in your union need collective bargaining rights?
MS. MARY KAY HENRYDiane, I stood with Theresa Law, a homecare worker in Columbus, Ohio, yesterday at a rally of 25,000 people that were standing up for a voice on the job. And what Theresa told me is it's her way to be able to bargain for additional hours that can serve her elderly client. It's her way to get a wage increase for the first time in her adult life after earning minimum wage her entire life as a homecare worker. And it was her way for the first time to have access to health care benefits. And so those -- that's for one group of our members. Another group, a registered nurse who cares for veterans in Cleveland told me that it's her way to be able to have enough time to spend with her patients.
MS. MARY KAY HENRYWhat collective bargaining allows her to do is sit down and solve problems with the nursing administration on how many nurses are needed in order to properly care for the people they serve. So, for us, collective bargaining is a way to provide the best possible service to the people we serve in health care, in property service and in public service.
REHMTalk about who compromises the 2.2 million members of your union.
HENRYThere's a million health care workers who serve homecare and elderly patients in nursing homes and in hospitals, and then our public service workers -- teaching assistant for special ed students I met yesterday in Cleveland -- as part of our public school employees, state employees, municipal employees. And then in property services, we have downtown cleaning, janitors and security officers.
REHMMary Kay Henry, she's president of the Service Employees International Union. And turning to you, Phil Kerpen, you heard Steve Greenhouse say as one of the reasons that states seem to be looking very carefully at collective bargaining are these huge deficits. Can you explain to our audience exactly how collective bargaining affects deficits?
KERPENWell, collective bargaining has driven a vicious cycle in which union members are -- I should say public workers -- are forced to be union members, whether or not they wish to be. Dues are deducted from their paychecks with or without their consent. They go to union bosses, who in turn can elect and reelect politicians. They can select their own bosses, if you will, for the next round of negotiations in which they can extract ever higher compensation, wages, benefits and so forth. And they've created, in particular, a crisis in public employee pension and health cost that have been devastating to state and local budgets as a consequence of that vicious cycle.
KERPENAnd that's what governors, like Scott Walker and John Kasich, are trying to break. They're trying to break that cycle and have the benefits and wages of public employees be determined by the political process, by normal considerations with input from taxpayers and so on, rather than by this cycle that empowers political union bosses to really spend that dues money in the political process and keep driving ever greater promises.
REHMYou're saying that, in fact, what's happening is that union members are forced, number one, to become members of unions. Number two, they then elect bosses who are favorably inclined towards one party or another -- and mostly Democratic -- and they then push for higher wages, for better benefits. And that's affecting state budgets?
KERPENAnd, more importantly, that money feeds back into the political system, and so this cycle has grown on itself. It actually -- it started in 1958 in New York City when Mayor Wagner allowed for collective bargaining for the first time. In the following year, Wisconsin was the first to adopt a statewide public employee collective bargaining provision. But, before that, unions had been adamantly opposed to the idea of government sector collective bargaining. In fact, in 1955, the AFL-CIO president George Meany said it is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.
KERPENAnd the perspective of unions, historically, had been that it would be a mistake for government workers to be able to demand higher wages and benefits and so forth because that would fall on them as taxpayers. But once - - but politicians discovered -- starting with Mayor Wagner and it spread across the country pretty rapidly -- that there was great political advantage there.
REHMPhil Kerpen, he's vice-president for policy at Americans for Prosperity. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd we're back talking generally about collective bargaining, how that has become a tool for unions all over the country, but most especially the concerns about public unions. Here's an e-mail from Monty, who says, "Why do state government workers need collective bargaining rights and federal government workers do not? Why are they called rights when the so-called rights were legislated by state politicians?" Steve Greenhouse.
GREENHOUSEThe government -- several levels of answers. You know, the government can give people the right to various things -- a right to an unemployment check, a right to Social Security -- so many governments have given workers the right to bargain collectively. And what's happening now in Wisconsin, Ohio, essentially, is the states are trying to take that right away from public employees. Federal government employees have a limited right to bargain. They can't bargain generally over as many issues as state employees can, where state employees have the right.
GREENHOUSEOne thing I think is fascinating in this whole discussion is many people, especially conservative voices, are saying that public sector employees are earning way too much. They earn far more than private sector employees, and their pensions and health coverage are outrageous.
REHMWhat did you find in your research?
GREENHOUSEI found in my research -- we had a big story in The New York Times on Saturday by two of my colleagues saying, essentially, that it's a draw, that public sector employees basically earn the same amount. College-educated public employees generally earn a good deal less than college-educated private sector employees, whereas people without a college degree earn more generally in the public sector than in the private sector. Now, what I find is many studies by conservative academics, conservative think tanks, you know, not surprisingly, come out saying that public sector employees earn more.
GREENHOUSEAnd those by liberal academics and liberal think tanks come out saying, actually, private sector workers earn more. There was a very good study by a bipartisan group with Republicans and Democrats on the board -- the Center for State and Local Government Excellence -- that concluded that public sector employees earn about 4 percent less.
REHMFour percent less. Phil Kerpen.
KERPENWell, briefly, I disagree with the positivist idea that rights are conferred by the state. I believe that rights are inalienable and we're endowed by our creator with them, and I think our founding documents support that view as well. I don't believe that the coercion of forcing people into a union based on an election is an expression of rights. I think it's an expression of power. Now, on the issue of compensation, I think it's very clear that government workers are making more than private workers, even before you look at pension and health benefits. The BLS data show that they make 34 percent more -- state and local workers -- than their private sector counterparts.
KERPENUSA Today did a very detailed study of federal workers, found in eight out of 10 job categories, they make more in total compensation than their private sector counterparts. And, specifically in New York City, the Citizens Budget Commission found that it's no longer the case that public employees make less than their similarly situated private sector counterparts. And in San Francisco, the Civil Grand Jury observed the same thing just last year. And so I think that this idea that public employees make less and, therefore, they ought to have these lavish defined benefit pensions and expensive health benefits that we no longer have in the private sector is no longer the case.
KERPENThey have now caught up and exceeded the private sector on the wage side, and yet they still have these benefits. And that's one of the reasons taxpayers can't afford it anymore.
HENRYWell, Diane, I just have to reject most of what Phil has just asserted because, when I think about what your e-mailer asked, I would argue that state employees, like any worker in this country, yearn for an ability to have dignity and respect on the job, and that the way workers achieve that dignity and respect is by forming organization and bargaining with their employer to solve problems, make things go better. I think you've seen it. Any one of us has seen the sort of excellent worker on the frontline that makes a business run really well.
REHMRichard Hurd, what about these conflicting figures? How do you see it?
HURDWell, I think that there are -- Steve Greenhouse had it right, that there is a lot of research and it shows both sides, depending on what the political perspective of the researchers happens to be. But, overall, the balance of evidence shows that, especially for college-educated public employees -- and there's a much higher share of public employees that are college-educated than is the case in the private sector -- for college-educated public employees, they clearly earn less than they would learn -- earn if they were in the private sector.
HURDOverall, it's somewhat balanced, and it varies tremendously, frankly, from state to state. And in big cities, like San Francisco and New York, they may well have achieved parity, but that doesn't mean they've achieved it nationwide for public sector workers. In fact, I think that, on balance, it shows that there's a slight deficit for public sector workers, even considering the better benefits that they tend to have.
GREENHOUSEResponding to Phil, you know, there's an interesting study about -- several conflicting studies about workers...
GREENHOUSE...in Wisconsin. You know, one study says public employees in Wisconsin earn considerably more than private employees. Then you look at the percentage of public employees in Wisconsin with college degrees -- 60 percent do, whereas just 20 percent, generally, for private sector workers. So, of course -- you know, if there's a high percentage of workers with college degrees in the public sector workforce, that will lift the general pay levels for public employees. And then the BLS study that Phil cites, if you look in the footnotes, it says, thou shall not really compare definitively these public sector numbers with the private sector numbers because of various factors such as disparate education levels.
GREENHOUSEAnd, generally, public employees stay on the job much longer, which gives them more seniority. And that also helps contribute to higher pay levels.
KERPENNo one else in the country still has lavish defined benefit pensions without paying...
REHMWhen -- excuse me. When you use the word lavish, what are we talking about in real terms in terms of a yearly pension?
KERPENYou know, I don't know the exact formula in Wisconsin. But, typically…
REHMWell, but that's why I'm wondering about the word lavish.
HENRY$24,000 a year is the average pension for a public worker in Wisconsin.
REHMDo you honestly see that as lavish?
KERPENI don't know if that's correct. I think the idea that...
REHMYou don't know if what is correct?
KERPENI don't know if that dollar amount is correct because it's by formula. And I think that more recent retirees and people coming towards retirement will have significantly higher benefits based on the current level of their salaries. The -- most of these pension benefits are based on a formula with several -- with a small number of the public employees' highest compensated years being the determining factor in that formula. And so it's...
REHMOkay. And what I'd like to understand, give me a range, Prof. Hurd. Give me a range of the lowest to the highest in terms of annual compensation for a public employee pension.
HURDWell, the lowest would be zero, and the highest, it would be in the triple figures for the -- for people who have had very high-level jobs, usually management jobs in the public sector. It's possible to have -- and, sometimes, police and firefighters -- it is possible that they might have a pension that gives them something in the neighborhood of $100,000. But the number that Mary Kay Henry mentioned is more typical of what we see in the public sector. I think it's extraordinarily important to mention that public sector pensions are more generous, whether it's a state with collective bargaining rights or not, and health care benefits are more generous if it's a state -- whether it's a state with collective bargaining rights or not.
HURDIn general, public sector management has understood that in order to attract people into the public sector since the pay is lower, that they have to offer more consistent benefits. And so all of these states -- union states and non-union states in the public sector -- they're facing serious budget problems as we've gone through this very deep recession. This created tremendous pressure on public governments. And so, yes, they're starting to look at the benefit plans and starting to recognize that something has to be done to rein in costs. But to just blame it on the public sector unions, I think, is a very narrow view of what's going on.
REHMPhil Kerpen, the Americans for Prosperity was founded by the brothers Charles and David Koch, who have very much been in the news because they spent so much money as part of Gov. Walker's election. And then there was this scam call to his office. What is their stake in the collective bargaining debate?
KERPENWell, David Koch is the chairman of our foundation, our educational foundation, our 501 (c) (3). He's not on the board of our (c) (4) when it comes to political activities.
REHMBut he did found the organization.
KERPENHe was one of the founders of sort of...
KERPEN...the combined organization.
KERPENAnd, you know, I -- he's at our board meetings. He supports our mission ideologically, but he has no say in our day-to-day operations...
KERPEN...or the selection of the issues that we engage in. And we're in this fight in Wisconsin, where we've had an active state chapter for over five years. And we have over 70,000 Americans for Prosperity members because of the budget principles, the taxpayer principles that are involved, because of the mission of our organization. Our funding for the effort in Wisconsin comes from our Wisconsin donors. It does not come from out of state. And I think that, to the extent that we have been supported by the Kochs -- which we're certainly grateful for -- it's because they agreed with the work we're doing and the sort of free market ideology that we promote. We certainly never do actions on their behalf.
REHMSteve Greenhouse, what about the Koch brothers? How are they involved here? They've been sort of a mystery and yet sort of right out front there, and there does seem to be some involvement here.
GREENHOUSEYes. You know, on one hand, the Koch brothers, like every -- all other Americans, have the right to voice...
GREENHOUSE...their First Amendment rights and be involved in campaigns and give money. But it's really stuck. Their activities in Wisconsin have really stuck in the craw of a lot of people there. They donated $43,000 to Scott Walker's gubernatorial campaign, and, I believe -- I've heard they've given -- they gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Some of that money also helped elect Scott Walker. And a lot of union members, a lot of Democrats in Wisconsin, really resent the Koch brothers' involvement.
GREENHOUSEThey say this is really an effort by these rich libertarian folks to, you know, weaken the voice of workers, to weaken labor unions. They know the Walkers are libertarians. They are not fans of labor unions. And people say it's no surprise that Scott Walker, whom they supported so enthusiastically right out of the box, when he became governor, took actions to try to weaken labor unions.
HENRYWell -- and Diane, I would expand that further by saying that the Koch brothers' financing of Americans for Prosperity and three other organizations like it are part of the vicious cycle that has increased income inequality in this country and made the outpouring of support in Wisconsin and Ohio we've seen that much more inspirational, from my perspective. Because the billionaire Koch brothers have an agenda to eliminate workers' ability to raise their wages and have a voice on the job at a time when income inequality is at its greatest and workers' wages have stagnated in the last two decades.
REHMHow do you respond to that, Phil?
KERPENWell, I think it's interesting coming from an organization that is probably the sort of prime mover on the hard left politically in this country. The SCIU contributed somewhere in the order of $60 or $70 million directly to President Obama's campaign. Andy Stern took credit for a number of the high-level appointments in this administration, including Patrick Gaspard, Craig Becker and others. I think that, to the extent that there's influence peddling with money going on here, it's certainly not my organization that is responsible for that.
KERPENAnd I think the suggestion that something other than democracy is in play with the legislation that Scott Walker is pushing is a little bit ridiculous. And this is a gentleman who was elected on a platform of dramatically cutting government spending. The people of Wisconsin endorsed that agenda. The offense to democracy here are the Democratic state senators who've actually fled the state to avoid debating this and taking part in the political process.
REHMPhil Kerpen, he's vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And joining us now is Randi Weingarten. He's (sic) president of the American Federation of Teachers. Good morning to you, sir.
MS. RANDI WEINGARTENGood morning.
REHMTalk -- sir. It's a she.
WEINGARTENRandi with an I.
REHMYes, exactly. Randi Weingarten, talk about why teachers need collective bargaining rights.
WEINGARTENWell, you know, I've been listening, Diane, to this show for the last -- about 10 or 15 minutes, and what's remarkable is this. Phil talks with lots of ease about how the Koch brothers and others should have a right to influence elections, do what they do and things like that. That's exactly what workers do through their labor unions. They both try -- they -- what labor tries to do is -- it is the only institution that actually tries to help create a middle class at the ballot box and at the bargaining table. And what teachers need and want in terms of a union is it is their vehicle to create quality in schools.
WEINGARTENIt's their vehicle for which they fight for lower class sizes so that they can differentiate instruction for kids. It's their vehicle for which they get training and professional development so they can be better. It's their vehicle for which they can create or have access to the American dream so that they can put their own kids through college. And, ultimately, what you're seeing in Wisconsin -- and, frankly, Phil, I don't know if you've seen this, but the polls in Wisconsin the last couple of days have said if they knew -- if people knew what Scott Walker was doing, they would not have elected him.
REHMNow, let me ask you a question, Randi. A number of people have expressed concerns for those children who are not being taught because teachers are out protesting. How long do you feel teachers can stay out to protest for collective bargaining rights?
WEINGARTENDiane, they are -- all the teachers who were protesting that first week went back to school that second week. And in Madison and other places, including, by the way, the Madison Chamber of Commerce who supports the workers' rights to bargain -- the Madison Chamber of Commerce has a different position than Scott Walker. But they all went back. And at the end of the day, when people leave their classrooms, it is a last resort. Everybody -- they felt they had no other redress and, still, they went back to their classrooms because ultimately, what people want -- and Scott Walker, in this instance, is their boss, and, basically, the boss is doing a power grab. The boss is basically saying, I don't want you to have a voice in anything that you do.
REHMNow, he's not the only one. Since resigning as chancellor of D.C. schools last year, Michelle Rhee has launched a new organization to counter teachers unions. How do you feel about that?
WEINGARTENLook, Michelle, you know -- just like the Koch brothers have the right to do whatever -- the right to have free expression, Michelle Rhee has the right to have free expression. The difference -- take the difference between what happened in Baltimore and what happened in Washington. We actually negotiated with Michelle Rhee, contracting Washington to try to focus on performance. And what happened is, as soon as she negotiated the contract, she went back on war footing with her teachers. And you saw what happened with the community. The community basically said they didn't want Mayor Fenty or Michelle Rhee to do this kind of my way or the highway. In Baltimore, you had a much more expansive and progressive contract that passed, and you see the Baltimore schools are turning around.
REHMAll right. Randi Weingarten, she is president of the American Federation of Teachers. We'll take a short break and then your calls.
REHMAnd we're back. We'll go to the phones. Let me tell you first who's with me here in the studio. Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union, Steve Greenhouse of The New York Times, Phil Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity, Richard Hurd is on the line with us. He is professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. And Randi Weingarten, she is president of the American Federation of Teachers. Let's go first to Orange Park, Fla. Good morning, Jeff.
JEFFGood morning. Two quick mechanic's questions. The -- and I'll take my response off the line. The law itself, how does it take away the bargaining rights? Does it just put in provisions that the teachers or whatever union can be fired if they aren't -- if they go on strike for benefits? And then -- and, if so, does the state fire -- you know, once the law pass, everybody go on strike, they fire everybody and they won't be able to find teachers because they can't find teachers to fill the positions now. Second question, the legislatures -- can one of the Republican members switch parties, vote with the Republicans and get the legislation through and then switch back?
REHMWow. Steve Greenhouse.
GREENHOUSEJeff, thanks for your question. The proposal of Gov. Walker would greatly weaken all but eliminate collective bargaining. He would limit collective bargaining to just one subject, basic wages. And unions cannot bargain over health coverage or vacations or workloads or scheduling, just basic wages. And, generally, you can't -- under his proposal, you can't get a raise above the inflation rate unless, you know, if you get -- if the inflation rate is 2 percent and you get a 3 percent raise, that has to go to a public referendum. And the chances of winning that are, of course, very small. So he's basically saying, you know, mayors...
GREENHOUSEMayors, school district superintendents, they don't have to bargain, period.
GREENHOUSEIt's not a matter of people going to jail. It's already illegal to go on -- for public employees to go on strike in Wisconsin. And you asked to whom it applies. It applies to state employees and almost all local employees, except police and firefighters are exempted.
GREENHOUSEWhy? Well, that's a big debate. You know, the Milwaukee police and firefighters union, you know, were among the few unions to endorse Scott Walker in the campaign. And some people say they scratch his back, he's scratching their back. He says -- and I think, you know, he sincerely means it -- that he's having a hard enough time with teachers and other government workers protesting when he wants to take away or greatly eliminate their bargaining rights. And he didn't want to have to deal with the cops and firefighters also joining the protests.
REHMWhat would it mean for existing pensions?
GREENHOUSEThat's -- you know, that's unclear, Diane, because, you know, the courts in Wisconsin, as with the courts in many, many other states, say you can't touch the pensions for people who have already retired...
GREENHOUSE...that they're contractually or even constitutionally protected. For current workers in Wisconsin, Gov. Walker has, in his current showdown, already, you know, pressured the unions into agreeing to have their members pay 5.8 percent of salary towards their pensions. Previously, they're paying, you know, virtually nothing towards their pensions. So that's a fairly significant concession he wrested from the unions. You know, the unions are trying strategically to say, we gave all this, you know, we gave -- we made this big compromise with you, governor. Now, it's time for you to compromise by dropping your insistence on eliminating, weakening collective bargaining rights.
REHMBut that wasn't enough, Phil Kerpen.
KERPENWell, there are a couple other provisions that I think are very important to understand. One of them -- and I think this is the one that has the union leadership most concerned -- is the end of forced union dues collected by the state. The State of Wisconsin would no longer collect union dues. People who wanted to be part of the union, who actually see value from the union, would have to write a check to the union. Many workers will not do so because they don't see value created by the union, and many object to the political activities that their dues go to.
KERPENAnd there would also be an annual vote. There would be an annual vote whether people want to keep their union. And I think that many people would be inclined not to vote for the union. And so those are the other critical provisions along with the pension, health contributions.
REHMYou raise a question in my mind. Professor Hurd, do we have any idea of what percentage of union members do not want to be union members and are forced to become members and forced to pay dues?
HURDWell, I think the whole concept of being forced is something that we probably should discuss in just a second. Collective bargaining is very valuable to workers. There have been surveys of unionized workers over a number of years. And they're very consistent at showing somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of union members would keep their union if they could keep it. And so the vast majority of union members want to keep their union because they recognize that it gives them a voice through collective bargaining. And I think...
REHMBut what about dues paying?
HURDSo in terms of paying dues, it depends on the state law. In the private sector, except for states that have opted to pass a separate law that says that unions cannot collect dues from workers unless workers sign an agreement that their dues be collected -- those are called right-to-work states -- but for most of the private sector, it's automatic in the first negotiations where management is perfectly willing to give unions the right to collect dues from all workers because they're representing them in bargaining.
HURDSo in terms of collecting dues -- one more thing.
HURDIn the public sector, some states do allow a contract clause which requires all workers to pay dues, and in other states that's not allowed. So it varies a lot from state to state. But in terms of they're being forced to pay dues, certainly, less than 15 percent are paying dues against their will.
HENRYI just think the most important point is it's much harder for workers in the United States to form unions than to get out of unions. And that that's part of the economic crisis for working people right now, where we have not been as able to raise wages in a situation where the recession has ended for corporate America and corporate America sitting on $1.7 trillion worth of profits, 30 million people can't find a job. And many people can't feed their families when they're working two and three jobs. And we think we have to have a vision for America that counters what Americans for Prosperity is saying should be the vision...
HENRY...which is low-wage jobs without benefits.
REHMWayne in Florida has a question about teachers. Go right ahead, Wayne.
WAYNEYes. My contention is that the conflict in Wisconsin and in the other states is not only based on busting the unions, but that the religious schools have positioned themselves over the last 30 years to be the beneficiary of the dismantling of the public schools. The funds via vouchers -- taxpayer funds via vouchers could be sent to the public -- to the religious schools and public education would end.
REHMAll right. Randi Weingarten.
WEINGARTENSo, look, the gentleman who spoke, I don't think it's about religious schools, per se. But you may actually be right in terms of the case in Wisconsin. As the Wisconsin -- as Gov. Walker put out a Wisconsin budget yesterday that cut almost $900 million -- $850 million from the schools in Wisconsin, from kids in Wisconsin at the same time as he proposed vouchers in order to, you know, deal with or allow what is called competition. Now, what vouchers do is they haven't proven in Milwaukee or other places to actually be a panacea. They actually don't do any much better than the public schools. But what they do is they drain really important resources at a time that there are no resources in Wisconsin.
WEINGARTENNow, let me just ask one other thing, which is the -- there's thousands and thousands of people that have been protesting on the streets of Madison. These are union members that want and need their unions. These are not union leaders. These are workers -- public workers, snow plow drivers, teachers, home care workers, police, fire -- that are doing that. And the reason that the unions are so opposed to some of the things that are in that bill is because we'd spend our time trying to get votes of union members as opposed to doing the kind of work we have to do to create quality services.
REHMAll right. And, Randi Weingarten, I understand you have to leave us. Want to thank you so much for joining us.
WEINGARTENThank you, Diane.
REHMRandi Weingarten is president at the American Federation of Teachers. And turning to you, Phil Kerpen, you've heard the comments that the unions, especially in Wisconsin, have conceded on a number of levels with those concessions. Why is it necessary to abolish collective bargaining? Why not just assume, okay, we're all here in good faith? The unions are going to make concessions. That's going to help the budget balancing. Why break the union?
KERPENWell, I think that Gov. Walker is correct that we need to end this cycle that I spoke about earlier, this cycle in which the tax dollars that flow in union dues are used to elect and reelect politicians who will then spend more that'll then feedback to reelect them again, and they'll spend more. And so I...
REHMBut don't corporations do exactly the same thing?
KERPENSome do, and -- to the extent that they do that they're lobbying for special favors and subsidies and giveaways and the rest. But we need to break that cycle as well by exposing it, and that's something we're working to do. I would say it's very different when they lobby to be left alone to create value as opposed to for special favors and deals and so on. And so they -- there are some situations in which corporations behave similarly that we would attack as well, some that are very different. But the point here is that the economic concessions Gov. Walker believes -- and I agree -- will not be very long lasting if we don't reform the process. They'll get them back and then some in the next Democratic administration they're able to elect. And so that's why it's (unintelligible) process...
REHMSteve Greenhouse, those last words from Phil, you'll get them back in a Democratic legislature or whatever. Is that, at bottom, what's at stake here, the ability of Democrats to be funded, in part, by these unions?
GREENHOUSEI think some union leaders say they only wish they had all the power that Republicans and Gov. Walker (unintelligible) say, if we have so much power to get these super-duper contracts, then why do all these studies show that, basically, you know, overall compensation wages and benefits together for public employees is more or less the same as for private employees? Having said that, there are some public employees who get very large pensions. You read about these police officers who work 500 hours their last year on the job, and they end up with, you know, huge pensions spiking, they call it. They end up with pensions of $80-, $90-, $100,000 that gives, in ways, other employees a black eye. I think, in many ways, you know, Scott Walker's proposals are ingenious if one wants to go about weakening unions.
GREENHOUSEAs Phil said, there would be elections each year about whether people want to keep their union. And once you basically eviscerate the powers of the union so you can only bargain over this one little thing -- wages -- and you're sure to disappoint because you can never get more than the consumer price index, people are going to say, why do I need a union? And they'll vote to get rid of the union, and -- now, I interviewed Gov. Mitch Daniels the other day, of Indiana, and he -- and, in 2005, he ended the right of state employees to bargain. And he told me, almost boastfully, that as a result of his collective -- of his order of banning collective bargaining for state employees, 90 percent of the workers in the state's public employee unions dropped out of the union. So, of course, that makes unions a much weaker factor...
REHMOkay. And what did it do for Indiana's budget balancing?
GREENHOUSEThat's a tough question. Indiana can now boast that basically its budget is balanced. And the Gov. Daniels will say that, you know, thanks to ending collective bargaining, it's been much easier for him to outsource operations, like who makes the food in the prison cafeterias or procurement for various agencies. And he says that saved tens of millions of dollars. His critics say he had this one outsourcing disaster involving call centers for Medicaid that's been so bungled that he's suing IBM for $1.2 billion. And he's saying, you know -- and people are saying, well, maybe privatization doesn't work so much. And some people say the main reason Indiana's budget is balanced is that he's kind of sold off the public turnpikes, and that has really fattened the coffers in Indiana.
REHMSteve Greenhouse of The New York Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Shawn in Cleveland, Ohio, where, I gather, your state Senate is getting ready to vote on this.
SHAWNGood morning. That's correct. I have a comment and will take your response off the air. In a perfect world, employers would simply give the employees a fair wage, pleasing benefits, good working conditions, paid vacations, et cetera. They would do this out of the goodness of their hearts. But it's not a perfect world. It's far less than that. So that's why there is a need for collective bargaining. The rich and mega-rich have their lobbyists. So why shouldn't the middle class have somebody to stand up for their needs?
REHMHow do you respond to that, Phil?
KERPENWell, I think that, in a free market economy, people come together on a voluntary exchange basis and someone works for another person on terms that they find mutually agreeable. And this has been the way that we built the most prosperous economy in the history of the world. I don't think that you need to intercede with a government-mandated forced collective bargaining scenario in order to give workers the upper hand. I think this is the, sort of, discredited idea that failed in so many centrally planned economies in the 20th century.
KERPENAnd I think that if you look at what's happened in the private sector, where union membership is now under 7 percent, I think there's a realization among workers that when unions go in and they demand more, more, more, more, more, they bankrupt companies. We saw it in the auto industry, the steel industry. We've seen it with the airlines. Even George McGovern had a famous L.A. Times op-ed about five years ago called "The End of More," where he said, we can't just keep demanding more, more, more. We're putting companies out of business.
REHMI thought it was interesting that New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, said that organized labor should have some collective bargaining rights.
KERPENWell, I think that that's sort of beside the point. I mean, I don't know what Christie believes or what he doesn't believe. I've had problems with a lot of the things in his budget, and we're trying to get him onboard our cap and trade repeal efforts in the state right now. And we've had difficulty doing that. So I certainly don't speak for Gov. Christie. But I think that -- you know, I think it's important to understand the difference between the private sector and the public sector.
KERPENIn the private sector, you've got this push and pull with an employer. And, you know, if you demand too much, you're going to put the company out of business and everyone is worse off. In the government sector, you will never put the government out of business. It falls on taxpayers, and you're not negotiating with the people who pay. They're going to pass it off on taxpayers. So the dynamics are very different.
HENRYI agree with Shawn. I think that this conversation has to be much bigger than collective bargaining rights. Twelve percent of American workers have a chance to raise their standard of living and have a voice on the job through collective bargaining, while 20 percent of the top wealthiest people in this country have earned 50 percent of the wealth that's been generated in the past two years. And we can't have a free market economy without collective bargaining for the middle class.
REHMMary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. Steve Greenhouse, New York Times labor and workplace reporter, author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker." Phil Kerpen at Americans for Prosperity, and Richard Hurd, professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. Thank you all so much for being with us. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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