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Are public employee unions to blame for states’ budget woes?

This week the battle of Wisconsin reached a new level of drama, state Senate Republicans pushed through a bill stripping public employee unions of collective bargaining rights. The Republicans acted while Senate Democrats were still out of the state. The uproar of this legislative fight continues.

But lost in the heated rhetoric over the maneuver was a simple question: In Wisconsin, and other states, is it fair to say that wages and benefits earned by unionized public employees are a major contributor to state budget crises?

Since he took office, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker insisted that state employee unions must lose benefits and collective bargaining rights so the state can balance its budget.  In Ohio, Governor John Kasich is proposing to strip public union workers of the right to negotiate health care and pension benefits.  He has said collective bargaining rules can bankrupt cities, which then have to turn to the state to bail them out.  In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels rescinded collective bargaining for state workers the minute he became governor.  He says those unionized workers have become “the new privileged class.”

In all, 13 governors have proposed layoffs, or cuts in pay or benefits for state employees.  And it’s not just Republicans — Democratic governors, like Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York have also put state workers on notice.

But are state employees just a convenient scapegoat, or are they are at the root of our state’s budget problems?

Watch the rest of the segments from this episode.


What to do about states’ budget crises?

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  • ben

    saw your show, but you lumped managerial pensions and benifets in with Union pension and benifets, realized it when you mentioned the city manager in California, why not show how much of the pension and benifit costs are for union vs non-union government employees. just curious

  • judy

    A better question to ask is how come the governor or the senates dont tell us what their free penison and health care cost the states.Why are they not taking cuts in their penison and health care plans, I bet that would save the states a huge amount of cash.I think as tax payers we should be able to put their cuts on the next ballet and see what happens.

  • Plittle

    Ditto to what Ben pointed out. Mentioning the Bell City manager and his cronies? Those people were writing their own paychecks, and had no place in this story.

  • Rick

    I’m so glad to see this the topic of discussion! It’s apparent the Unions “Nationwide” and locally don’t want there actual power and Democrat connection to be front and center stage. Because the forgotten question is “What about the rights of the millions of “Tax Payers” whose money goes to pay the wages, pensions, 401K’s of these Federal and State employees”? Don’t they have a say in this? And consider the fact that eventually there will be more Retired Federal and State employee’s, collecting these “Huge Fat Pensions”, than the actual employed working force contributing. How is that sustainable?

  • GiovanniNRG

    I concur with ben, judy, and plittle above and cite rick’s response above in example of the error of showing headlines of City and State executives malfeasance in the context of a show discussing to pros/cons of keeping/reducing Union benefits. Those executives who have the power to line their own pockets with additional amounts over and above the benefits that were collectively bargained for are a completely different subject than Union members. They should have been treated as such. It’s the executives who have the power to abuse the system. The Union is only a tool to help protect workers rights. The corporations have weakened the government to the point where it cannot protect workers everywhere. I’ve worked in both and I recommend you get yourself a Union. Best regards to all of you.

  • Bill

    As long as the public is ignorant of budget details or, even worse, mis-informed (like the FOX news story that the Wisconsin protesters caused $7.5 million damage to remove the tape used to hang their posters on the walls) … what good would a public vote be?

  • judi

    Only half the story was presented. Don’t forget the governor of New Jersey cut taxes for the wealthy and then started whining about what bad shape the budget is in. Similar story in Wisconsin only it was tax cuts for the corporations. This is just a continuation of the hijacking of our money to flow to the top 2%. They won’t be happy until they have it all.

  • Mike Boomshadow

    Rick, you should consider using facts in your commentary. You’ll need a cited source for your assertion that nationwide unions don’t want their power or their connection to the Democratic Party to be “front and center stage.”

    As far as the rights of the taxpayers, I think you’ll find that the public sector workers include teachers, firefighters, police officers, public utility workers, and others who we employ to defend those rights–and who are taxpayers themselves. Additionally, you need to show the numbers for these “Huge Fat Pensions” you claim, as well as the number of workers versus the number of retirees.

    What’s not sustainable is a workforce with no rights.

  • Bean Counter

    What is needed is an actuarial discussion that examines how much of a person’s pay can be continued into retirement without passing the cost on to future years. Pension paying entities should be required to fund in full their obligations over the working lives of employees.

  • nvsand

    The funds should have been paid in during the working years. Where did the money go? Rick, tell me more about the “Huge Fat Pensions”. Where are they? State and Federal employees want to know as their pensions aren’t huge and fat. Their pensions were part of their salary each and every paycheck. Someone stole the money? Who? State and Federal governments perhaps?

  • Guest

    Are public employee unions to blame for states’ budget woes? I don’t think so.
    In California, Police Officers have Union. Los Angeles School Teachers have Union. And Kaiser Permanente has Union but Kaiser is a specialized form of Union in that they put the doctors on their payroll. So also the Police Officers and the teachers have Credit Unions. Union Subscription come from their employees’ paycheck , and not from the State Budget. However, the politicians and the Special Interest Group receive Political Contribution from some of the Unions.
    The State Budget Problem is nothing new and has been there even before the unions intervened.
    Countrywide Mortgage did not have any union. But how did it fail miserably by making the prospective homeowners bankrupt and homeless? No one questions countrywide or similar organization that committed major blunder in the mortgage industry. Mistakes of a few and a wrong decision-making by a few so-called Executives can ruin this country and throw people out of business. That is what happened in the past and that is what is happening now.
    We bailed out three major failed banks by using $ 30 Billion of Taxpayers’ money.
    What happened now? Nothing.

    Was there a Union for all these banks that failed miserably. Hell, No.

  • Balanka


    A MORE PERFECT UNION, ESTABLISH JUSTICE…” Yes, establish Justice! Article
    XIV. Says: “No State shall …deny to any person within its jurisdiction the
    equal protection of the laws”.
    I try to believe what happens in the state offices is without the knowledge of the senators, the governors and the president.

    I have been unemployed for more than 6 months without any payment and I am living on my equity line of credit. Thank God I have it, but not for long. One might think about how I could celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Eve and now Easter and Mother’s Day when my family does not have any money and we live in a state of fear? Now is the time to publish my story about discrimination at the Labor Department of the Bridgeport Office.

    Dear Reader, is your situation similar in your community?

    I was fired without any reason and my employer appeared in person at the CT Department of Labor office (I wasn’t allowed in person, just on the phone) and my employer told to the administrator that I voluntarily quit. The administrator made her decision based on a Hungarian E-mail that she did not
    understand and my employer did not have a certified translation of it. The administrator did not give me a chance to defend myself. I appealed but no hearing date has been scheduled for months. The Docket Calendar of the Connecticut Department of Labor shows that they have time for employers and some people who are above other claimants. The appeals of the employers are heard within a week but most of the claimants have to wait for months. Thousands of people have no spare money or home equity and they are losing their houses and getting sick from the stress. I don’t know their story but I hope when I write my story people will pay attention to what is happening in this country. The government is trying to force the desperate people to get lower paying jobs than what they qualify for. Officials can say that the unemployment rate is decreasing for their statistics, however in reality the employer gets workers at cheaper cost. This allows the rich to get richer! I am not sure that any media would dare to publish this! Free speech has to be exercised by all. I came to this country because of the FREEDOM OF
    SPEECH and I strongly believe that we still have it and we can exercise our Constitutional rights!!!

    My story began about two years ago when my employer, a female Doctor of Internal Medicine, started abusing me verbally, and later physically as well. First she belittled me, then she pushed patients’ charts in my face. It escalated to her pushing me against the wall, pulling my hair hard, and stabbing me in the arm with the point of the pen, or slapping my head repeatedly. I cried almost every day, and I was shaking from stress. I had to stay because of my 83 and 85 year old parents who depend on me. We were alone when she abused me, so there would not be any witnesses. I asked her to stop, but she told me she can do anything with me as long as she pays my salary. She knew that I needed the money. Several times she asked me to lie to the patients to have them come to her office and she treated a lot of patients irresponsibly. By the way, did I mention that my doctor-employer was arrested and charged
    with two felonies and convicted in 2008 for assaulting a Park Ranger and a Police Officer? The conviction was sealed after she served her community service and drug and alcohol rehab. It is good to have a good lawyer to hide all this from the public and patients! Are these the kind of people who get
    justice but not the honest, hard working ones? No wonder the unemployment rate is decreasing.
    After I wrote my story to the Connecticut Governor and President Obama’s Office I got a hearing date by telephone. It is very rare the do appeal hearings by phone because you can not present your witnesses and your evidence. Not mention that your employer can be there in person but not you. So I had to hire an attorney to change the telephone hearing to in-person. Who has money for that if you did not get any payment for almost 6 months? Is this the so called equal opportunity?
    People can not get a hearing date and compensation so yes; on paper everything seems OK, but is that the reality?
    If my story caught your attention, please E-mail me at

  • Guest 5

    It is the age old debate Is it not!?
    If the employers have all the power the risk is they will usurp that power, against employees.
    If the employees have all the power ( it never happens in reality, shareholders, business owners, government agencies whatever intervene, so its never a reality) they could usurp that power against employers via Unions.
    The solution is check and balances as enshrined in the constitutional political arena Unions negotiate with employers and do it sensibly, and not like the auto industry unions where benefits were clearly unrealistic.
    Who has more money to pay lobbyists? Unions come in a poor second.
    Its a disgrace what is going on in some recently become Republican governor states, If benefits are too high = not covered by contributions negotiate contributions that over time cover costs and the cost sharing employee/ company or government.
    Penasions have been a disaster not only in government but seriously underfunded In corporate America, again the solution is to negotiate something that a) shares the cost of fixing the current problem ( Freeze the defined benefit plan and then agree a financing schedule and shared cost) b) All future pension benefits on a contribution basis shared between employees and employers on a negotiated realistic cost/benefit basis, meaning how does the private or corporate sector share the cost.
    The problem if one exists is that previous state governments failed to negotiate effectively and properly, and Unions played on the ” you cannot play around with education as an example factor” in offensive negotiations.”
    Guest 5.