Governor Scott Walker Explains “Why I’m Fighting in Wisconsin”

March 10, 2011; Source: Wall Street Journal | Nonprofits know that the ostensible budget battle in Wisconsin isn't just about the state budget and isn't just about unions' collective bargaining rights. What the Democrat-less Wisconsin state senate did late on Wednesday evening, stripping public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights, revealed that the Republicans weren't just thinking about the budget.

But eliminating budget language from the bill, Republican state senators were able to convene the senate to vote on union collective bargaining rights. They couldn't have voted without some Democrats present to achieve a larger quorum needed for a budget bill.

The animus toward the unions and collective bargaining is about the unions – which are 501(c) organizations, by the way – not about the money. At the state level, the unions have already agreed to concessions on their pensions and health insurance, exactly as Governor Scott Walker wanted, but that clearly wasn't enough. The governor's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explains that he wanted more, based on concerns that unions were negotiating with localities without offers of givebacks or concessions and that collective bargaining by the public sector unions would prevent public agencies from making work rule reforms.

Walker poses the issue in terms of the threat of "mass teacher layoffs" if the unions aren't stopped from collective bargaining, and he suggests that the unions are responsible for layoffs of talented teachers like one young woman in the Milwaukee Public School system. Unlike his Republican Senate colleagues, Walker is still referring to his "budget-repair bill", but that's long gone. The Senate whacked union rights, the governor lauded the Senate's late night, no-public-notice action, and the assembly is debating its companion piece to the senate's action as this is being written.

No matter where one stands on what workers should or shouldn't contribute to pensions and health insurance, there are some points that are important for nonprofits here: 1. If governors and legislatures are going to use the veneer of "budget" to achieve a reduction in workers' hard-won collective bargaining rights, it suggests that some portion of the nation's debate over budget deficits is a ruse, and nonprofits ought to be fighting budget cuts in critical public and human services harder than ever; and 2. If legislative committees can meet with almost no notice to shove through legislation to strip one category of 501(c) organizations of their rights and privileges, the same could be done to 501(c)(3)s if a similar ideological juggernaut were to arise. Governor Walker may be "Fighting in Wisconsin"; nonprofits should be as well.—Rick Cohen

  • A B Carroll

    I disagree with the tone of this article. Unions and their seniority rules bring significant unfairness to the table. Global competition has made unions and their demands for “more” unsustainable. If they continue to exist the TAXPAYERS will have to subsidize them and that is not fair.

  • Christa R. Klein

    But, Rick, I don’t understand why public employees’ unions are 501(c)(3)’s when
    1-union dues are withheld from their salaries, salaries paid by tax payers
    2-those dues create the greatest pool of money for political lobbying in many states.

    Most of the rest of us have to seek volunteer contributions and are not permitted by the IRS to influence legislation or support policital candidates. Nor do we all together create a lobbying block that singularly favors positions backed by one political party. Or is this NPQ’s favored position?

    Seeking clarification.

  • Michael Hatzenbeler

    Clarification for Christa: labor unions are not 501(c)(3) organizations and there are many different types of 501(c) orgs, a total of 28. Most 501(c) orgs. can influence legislation and collect dues from members, like the US Chamber of Commerce, a 501(c)(6) organization which is just as politically active as any labor union. Salary deduction doesn’t come from 501(c) status but from negotiated collective bargaining agreements. Any organization that wants to give up the deductibility of donations can switch from 501(c)(3) status to another type of 501(c) and become more politically involved. And many would be more effective at advancing their agendas if we did join together as lobbying blocks and create stronger alliances with political parties, or create new issue specific political parties, which has happened many times in our nation’s history. Hope that helps.

  • rick cohen

    Christa: I said that they were 501(c) organizations, but not 501(c)(3)s. Unions are typically structured as 501(c)(5) organizations ( Having watched unions in lots of places, they’ll deal with anyone in power (just look at the relationship of former Republican Governor George Pataki to Dennis Rivera’s hospital workers in 1199). But the Republican party now is on a tear to undo union rights, so the Republicans (who used to try to appeal to unions such as the Teamsters, as you might remember) are making unions into a pretty rigid pro/con issue. I’m sure that Democratic mayors and governors who have to sit across the negotiating tables from public sector unions see things with a little more complexity than the notion of “positions backed by one political party.” For itself, NPQ has no political position vis-a-vis either political party, and if you read my column, you’ll see that I give plenty of criticism toward both parties.

  • rick cohen

    Dear A.B.: My article really addresses two concerns: (1) if the issue is budgetary, then say it, but don’t use budget as the camouflage for another agenda, which is what happened here; and (2) legislatures that play quickie procedural tricks like the Wisconsin Senate did do not engender public trust in the governmental process. The debate over the value of unions? It’s a good one to have, though plenty of people would say that it was the labor movement that vaulted many working people out of the working poor and into the middle class of this country. I don’t get how public sector unions would affect global competition, but I’m sure someone might make an argument on that score. Thanks for your comment.