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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

Why Wisconsin's Labor Fight Is Crucial

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Historian Fred Siegel on why the battle over public employee unions here is so important.


Unlike the reforms advanced in most other states, Walker struck at the very heart of public union power — the checkoff whereby the state collects union dues from its employees and then passes them on to the unions, which in turn use the money to back their candidates for office and to lobby the state or municipality for more spending. In states where checkoff has been ended, such as Indiana, union treasuries have dried up. This is a zero-sum game in which it is difficult to craft a compromise.

When they were in power, the Democrats played hardball with the Republicans. Yet they now seemed shocked to have the favor returned. By placing themselves at the very center of the political arena (five of the 10 largest contributors to congressional and presidential campaigns over the past 20 years have been public sector unions), government workers have taken on a campaign burden that will be difficult to relinquish.

Exercising political power, and not walking the picket line, has been the source of strength for these public unions, and now it is their weakness. They can’t back off, but the costs the unions have imposed on the economy can’t be sustained. There is little reason to assume a quick, clear outcome to this epic conflict. But as long as the recession batters the country, you can bet the struggle will be at the heart of Wisconsin and American politics.

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