Ohio and Wisconsin, two heavily unionized states awash in red ink, are aboutto make some major changes to the laws that govern public employees. Thelegislatures in both states are considing measures that would significantlychange collective bargaining rights for state workers in an effort to find budget savings.
Public employee unions havesuccessfully used collective bargaining to obtain higher wages, guarantee jobs, and moregenerous benefits, including for healthcare and pensions, for their members. However, some feel that collective bargaining has been abused, extracts high costs on the state and taxpayers, and is increasingly irrelevant given other laws that govern the workplace. In Ohio, for example, a report by the Buckeye Institute shows that state employees earn more than private sector employees in 85 of the state's 88 counties. In fact, public employees unions have used collective bargaining to guarantee wage increases for government workers even as the private sector lost jobs. Since 2000, Ohio has lost 612,700 private sector jobs, but the state lost a net of only 1,600 government jobs.
Today and Thursday, the Ohio Senate is hearing testimony on Senate Bill 5, authored by Senator Jones, which would eliminate collective bargaining for state workers in Ohio. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is proposingin his budget to limit collective bargaining for state workers (except police andfirefighters) to the issue of wages. Additionally, Walker is proposing torequire “government workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to theirpensions, much more than now; and requiring state employees to pay at least12.6 percent of health care premiums (most pay about 6 percent now).”
Walker says he is doing this because the state is broke andit’s time to pay up. This year, Wisconsin faces a budget gap of $137 millionand a deficit worth several billion dollars over the next few years. If Walkercan’t save money through reducing the cost of government employees, he fears hemay have to lay off about 6,000 state workers or eliminate Medicaid altogether.
With states like Ohio and Wisconsin facing serious fiscal challenges in the months ahead, it doesn't make much sense to continue to keep the hands of governors and legislatures tied when they negotiate with government workers. Failing to change collective bargaining laws could leave the states forced to make extremely painful choices that no one wants to contemplate.