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