TOPICS > Politics

Wisconsin Public Workers Union Rights Go Head-to-Head with State Budget Woes

February 18, 2011 at 6:05 PM EDT
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A push to reduce state workers' benefits and eliminate collective bargaining caused a furor this week as protesters descended on Wisconsin's Capitol. Judy Woodruff examines the predicament with Jonathan Williams of the American Legislative Exchange Council and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Wisconsin, thousands of public workers and their supporters protested for a fourth day at the statehouse in a battle over benefits and union bargaining rights, a fight that is spreading to other states.

WOMAN: When I say workers, you say rights.



WOMAN: Workers!


JUDY WOODRUFF: Teachers, firefighters and other public employees in Wisconsin turned out by the thousands again to express their anger over Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his plan to cut the state’s budget deficit by curbing their pay and their collective bargaining rights.

Walker says the state faces a $137 million deficit this year and a $3.6 billion hole over the next two years.

At a midday rally, Richard Trumka, the head of the country’s largest labor group, the AFL-CIO, told workers that the governor was using the deficit to attack unions.

RICHARD TRUMKA, AFL-CIO: And here’s the rub. He did it so he could attack our collective bargaining rights to pay back his rich buddies and CEOs!


RICHARD TRUMKA: And he did not count on all of this!


RICHARD TRUMKA: You’re inspiring all the people of Wisconsin. You’re inspiring the people of Ohio, who are going through the same kind of attacks that you are. You’re inspiring the people of Indiana, who are living through the same attacks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Walker wants most state employees to pay half of their pension costs and half of health care costs, while eliminating union bargaining.

Without an agreement, Walker has warned that 10,000 public workers could lose their jobs.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R-Wis.): We have got to balance it now. And for those unions that say they want to negotiate, I think it’s pretty disingenuous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Thursday, Republicans were poised to pass a bill enacting Walker’s plan. But the vote has been delayed indefinitely because more than a dozen Senate Democrats fled the state, gathering in neighboring Illinois.

Wisconsin State Police went searching for them this afternoon, after the state Senate minority leader, Mark Miller, spoke from an undisclosed location.

MARK MILLER (D), Wisconsin State Senate minority leader: Well, we left the state so we were out of the reach of the Wisconsin State Patrol, which has the authority to be able to round us up and bring us back into the legislature.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gov. Walker has called the boycott a stunt and vowed not to concede.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: The state senators who are hiding out down in Illinois should show up for work, have their say, have their vote, add their amendments. But, in the end, we have got a $3.6 billion budget deficit we have got to balance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The battle leapt to the front of the national agenda earlier this week, when President Obama sided with the state workers.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Some of what I have heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaker of the House John Boehner took issue, saying: “If the president truly wants an adult conversation about our fiscal challenges, shouting down reform-minded leaders is a bad way to start. Call off the attacks, and lead, Mr. President.”

The fight is being joined in other states, where Republicans are also trying to lower employee benefits. Protests are planned in coming days in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. More than 20 state legislatures are considering benefit cuts.

And we get two views now on the issues being debated in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the unions protesting in Wisconsin. She was in Madison last night. And Jonathan Williams is the director of the Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force for the American Legislative Exchange Council, which represents conservative state lawmakers.

Thank you both for being with us.

Randi Weingarten, to you first.

Just so that we understand, Gov. Walker in Wisconsin said all he’s trying to do is simply ask state workers to bear their share of the pain in order to get the state finances under control. Is that how you see it?

RANDI WEINGARTEN, American Federation of Teachers: You know something? Once you spend some time in Madison, you realize that we obviously didn’t do a good job in educating Gov. Walker, because he’s being totally and completely disingenuous.

Last month, before the governor passed these corporate tax breaks, the equivalent — the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office said the state was going to perhaps end up with a surplus. Three months ago, the same state workers that the governor is trying to strip collective bargaining rights from said that they would give $100 million of concessions.

But that wasn’t enough for the governor. He attempted to get — and succeeded in getting that contract rejected. Since that point, he has not — he has rebuffed every single attempt that the workers have made to talk to him. Instead, he’s manufactured this immediate crisis in order to just strip them of their economic bargaining rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn to you, Jonathan Williams.

I mean, as you can see, the other side has a very different view from what the governor says. I mean, you are hearing them say: He’s trying to destroy our bargaining rights.

JONATHAN WILLIAMS, American Legislative Exchange Council: Well, you know, I would disagree.

Wisconsin is a state in serious fiscal problems right now. They face not only the budget deficit of $3.6 billion in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, but if you look at the unfunded liabilities in the pension funds, for instance, for teachers, for government employees, the unfunded liabilities range — the estimates range from $50 billion to $60 billion over the life of those pension funds.

So, the question is, is, you know, the budgeting as usual isn’t working here, and, so, what are the major reforms that we can accomplish to solve this budget shortfall without going back to the taxpayers and asking for more?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Randi — Randi Weingarten?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Let me — Judy, let me just say that, you know, I asked the folks in Madison last night what was the funding situation in terms of the pensions? And it’s 97 percent funded, according to the Wisconsin funding and actuaries.

But this is the bottom line. The workers, teachers, firefighters, they are all willing to sit down with the governor and solve these problems. Wisconsiners are problem-solving folk. They have used collective bargaining for the last 50 years to do this.

The bottom line here is they are willing to help. They are willing to do their fair share. They have said that over and over again. What the governor is trying to do is he’s manufactured a crisis right now, rather than having a budget discussion over the next six months. And he’s done it for political payback, and simply to try to get rid of workers’ voices.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are welcome to respond to that, but I do want to broaden this out and talk about what is going on in other states, because there is an effort by governors and state legislatures, Jonathan Williams, around the country to do similar — actions similar to what we are seeing in Wisconsin.

Explain — just give us a few examples and explain how that is different or similar to.


Well, let me say that the pension situation in Wisconsin is far worse than 96 percent, or whatever, funded that Randi just said. That’s assuming that didn’t have any pension losses in the downturn in 2008, and it’s assuming you’re going to get an 8 percent rate of return over the next 30 years, which I don’t know — Judy, if you know how to get an 8 percent rate of return, I would love to invest my money with you.

But to get to the broader question, other states, probably up to two dozen states, are going to look at, you know, changing pension systems to more of a private sector approach, for instance 401(k) type plans, plans like Mitch Daniels has done in Indiana, with health savings accounts for state workers, instead of the current defined benefit system, which, by the way, 70 percent of Indiana’s 30,000 state workers have voluntarily chosen the health savings account, because it is a good deal and it’s a portable asset for them.

And that’s the way many states are moving today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Randi Weingarten, what about this argument that, since a lot of private workers have had to move away from the so-called defined benefit pension plan to an investment model, like the 401(k), why shouldn’t more public employees be willing to do the same thing?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Judy, you know what is interesting is that West Virginia actually went to that kind of contribution plan and after several years went back to a defined benefit plan because it was actually cheaper for the taxpayers of West Virginia.

Ultimately, we need to have a discussion in this country about retirement security for all and that — insuring that every American has that kind of retirement security. But that’s not the point here. The point is that Wisconsin, folks in Wisconsin, folks in Ohio, they are willing to step up.

They know that people are hurting. But they want to make sure that every American who plays by the rules, works by the rules, works hard has a decent life and has a voice at work. And that’s what this fight is about. It’s making sure that the teachers who want to teach kids, firefighters who want to fight fires, that they actually have a voice at work. They want to work hard and engage in public service in that way, but they want a voice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jonathan Williams, we do hear the unions and their allies saying what Gov. Walker and these other governors, whether it’s Ohio or other states, may want to do is take away their bargaining rights as unions, in other words, completely weaken or even decimate them as a union.

JONATHAN WILLIAMS: Well, you know, we really want to protect teachers. You know, they do a great service to our children. I’m a product of two public schoolteachers from Michigan. And I — I believe they have a great value to our society.

However, the benefits have gotten out of line with those in the private sector. There’s no reason why we can’t go for, for instance, new teachers and say, the defined benefit model is going to fail the states. This isn’t just a right-wing talking point. This is — a former liberal speaker of the House, Willie Brown, on the left in California has said this.

It is not a partisan issue. It is an issue of fiscal sustainability for the states. You know, why do we think we are talking about bankruptcy in the states today? It’s pensions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about this notion of taking way their right to have collective bargaining, in other words, the core of what a union does for its members?


I mean, we have been seeing this. Gov. Mitch Daniels did something like this in 2005 by executive order. And, you know, we feel that, you know, through the legislative process has more transparency and accountability, so voters can weigh in. And that is what we see right now in Madison. But we do have an open and honest hearing about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what the AFT and other unions are most concerned about, Randi Weingarten?


The — the bottom line here is taking away bargaining rights doesn’t create one more cent in the Wisconsin coffers. What we’re talking about is really having a voice at work.

If the governor was serious about respecting teachers, about wanting public services to be the best they could be, about wanting to make sure that he heard the taxpayers, and wanting to make sure that there was fiscal solvency in that state, he would actually talk to the workers, as opposed to ignoring every single entreaty they have made.

The reason they’re on the streets is because he refuses to talk to them. The only redress they have is on the streets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly again, Jonathan Williams, in other states, do you think we’re going to see scenarios play out like what we have seen in Wisconsin?

JONATHAN WILLIAMS: I think states are living in a fantasyland if they think that they can continue under the business-as-usual system that’s racked up these billions of dollars of shortfalls and trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities in pension systems.

And so I think many states are going to have to take the approach of Wisconsin and Ohio and the other states to start to bring these benefits in line with the private sector. If you look at it, the benefits for state and local workers are 69 percent greater than those of their private sector counterparts.

That’s just not sustainable. If money grew on trees, we could all make a million dollars a year and have retirement security for life.


JONATHAN WILLIAMS: But we know that’s not the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We going to have to leave…

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Judy, may I — may I — may I just say that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … be very brief.


Jonathan is actually not telling the truth, because the — the salaries of these workers are far below the salaries of private sector workers.

JONATHAN WILLIAMS: I was mentioning benefits, but thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, this is a story we’re going to continue to follow, certainly through the weekend in Wisconsin, and ongoing in these other states.

Jonathan Williams, Randi Weingarten, we thank you both.