Did Gov. Walker hand the labor movement a silver lining?

Dennis Cauchon reports on a USA Today/Gallup national public opinion survey indicating that 61 percent of respondents oppose the kind of gutting of collective bargaining rights being pushed forward by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican majority in the state’s legislature (link here):

The public strongly opposes laws taking away the collective bargaining power of public employee unions as a way to ease state financial troubles, according to a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.

The poll found that 61% would oppose a law in their state similar to one being considered in Wisconsin, compared with 33% who would favor such a law.

Interestingly, FOX News was caught reversing the percentages, indicating (erroneously) that respondents strongly supported Walker’s move against collective bargaining!

Generating national activism

Union supporters and workers in other states are holding rallies to support public workers in Wisconsin and to let their own elected state officials know how they feel about the prospect of similar legislation. State capitals in Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and West Virginia are among the sites where lobbying days and rallies have been held in response to the Wisconsin situation.

Apparent impact

Perhaps the message already is getting through. Sam Hanalel of the Associated Press (via Yahoo! News, link here) reports that in light of the protests,”Republican leaders in several states are toning down the tough talk against public employee unions and, in some cases, abandoning anti-union measures altogether.” For example:

Indiana’s governor urged GOP lawmakers to give up on a “right to work” bill for fear the backlash could derail the rest of his agenda. In Ohio, senators plan to soften a bill that would have banned all collective bargaining by state workers. And in Michigan, the Republican governor says he’d rather negotiate with public employees than pick a fight.

Amnesty International USA

Gov. Walker’s inability or refusal to distinguish between calling for wage and benefit concessions and extinguishing the very right to engage in collective bargaining is raising concerns within the global human rights community. Amnesty International USA has weighed in with a statement of concern (link here):

If enacted, the Governor’s proposal would undermine the ability of unions in the public sector to protect workers, including by limiting workers’ ability to object to work conditions.

…These rights are an essential foundation to the realization of other rights, and are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, as well as conventions adopted by the International Labor Organization.

Can arrogance flip public opinion?

Anti-labor Republicans had a nearly ideal situation before them: The effects of the recession have put severe strains on state budgets. This has fueled public perceptions, however untrue in most instances, that government workers are paid too much and receive monstrously high pensions. It was a ripe opportunity for anti-labor elected officials to put public employee unions in their place.

But perhaps the sheer audacity of getting rid of collective bargaining rights almost in their entirety has triggered an innate sense of fairness that is turning public opinion against such draconian proposals.

This is a potential silver lining for the labor movement, a narrow but genuine window of opportunity to educate America about the importance of the labor movement for all but the most generously compensated workers.

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Helpful summary: USA Today’s Cauchon also wrote a helpful Q&A on the key issues at stake in Wisconsin, here.

Historical background: For an informative NPR interview on the history of public employee unions featuring Joseph Slater, University of Toledo law professor and expert on public sector unionization, go here. (Hat tip to Workplace Prof blog for the link.)

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Previous posts on Wisconsin:

The attack on human rights in Wisconsin

A tale of two news articles: Snapshots from Egypt and the U.S.

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