I didn't harbor any of the Wisconsin Democrats who fled to Illinois in March to keep the legislature from voting on the governor's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining by government employees. But I do know a few folks who are Wisconsin state employees.

None mind having to pay more for health insurance and other benefits, something our annual salary survey (see page 48 of our March issue) shows is increasingly common in the public sector. They're well aware that their private-sector counterparts have been doing that for years. But they do resent not being given the opportunity to help resolve the state's budget woes by suggesting it themselves rather than having the measure unilaterally imposed.

Roughly 12% of all U.S. workers belong to a union. In the 1940s, 36% of union members worked in the private sector and 10% in the public sector. Today, with many manufacturing jobs having moved overseas, these percentages are almost perfectly reversed.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, local government employees — a group that includes teachers, police officers, and fire fighters — have the highest membership rate: 42.3%. Government employees also comprise about half of the 1.6 million workers who are covered by a union contract but aren't themselves members of a union. Union members earn $917 a week compared to $717 for people who don't belong to or are represented by a union.

When you look back on some of the incidents that spawned the labor movement — women leaping to their deaths in 1911 during a fire because managers locked the doors at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, the Colorado National Guard opening fire on 1,200 peacefully striking coal miners in 1914 — it's tough to say that average Americans didn't need some way to protect their livelihood and quality of life. Human nature being what it is, though, over time some people got greedy and the pendulum swung too far in the other direction.

Whether or not the pendulum is where it should be, we're all struggling thanks to unregulated speculation in mortgage bonds. (That's a topic for another column, and until then I highly recommend The Big Short by Michael Lewis; you won't be able to stop reading.) And that includes all levels of government.

So until things return to “normal” — and possibly forever after — I suspect public employers will continue implementing measures private employers have taken for some time.

See what your colleagues think about unions in the column at the right.

- Stephanie Johnston,
Editor in Chief


In early March, we asked our e-newsletter readers if they are in a union. Although 76% said they are not union members (22% said yes), nearly half of respondents commented that unions are still needed. See below to see what some survey-takers had to say.

    If our town was not union, we'd be minium-wage employees.

    In government, things they [unions] bargain for become benefits for us non-reps as well.

    Unions protect bad employees.

    In these trying times everyone needs to give back, including union members.

    They shouldn't bleed companies dry through unequitable contracts and forced arbitration and then expect the taxpayers to help bail out and keep afloat their golden goose.

    The right to form a union ought to be equated to free speech and freedom of association.


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