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Wisconsin Syndicat: A French Take On The U.S. Labor Showdown

Wisconsin Syndicat: A French Take On The U.S. Labor Showdown

France's top business daily dissects the Republican governors' challenge to public sector unions.

Protesters at capitol in Madison, WI (minasodaboy)

NEW YORK - Americans do not take to the streets easily. But when they do, the result can be extraordinary. Take Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, flooded nowadays with colorful banners and angry union supporters. American moviemaker Michael Moore arrived there last Saturday to speak in front of the thousands of protesters assembled around the state capitol. Some 8,000 people have also gathered around the capitol building in Columbus, Ohio.

The protests are a response to the incredible offensive mounted by Republicans against public-sector unions, which are now expected to tighten their belts, relinquish their collective-bargaining rights, and even end their right to strike.

Not since Ronald Reagan curtly fired 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981, has any political figure dared to pick a head-on fight with American unions. The present confrontation has multiple explanations and serves different purposes, both economic and political.

Several of the newly elected Republican governors have taken advantage of the financial crisis to attack what they see as pampered public employees. America's 50 states – which are required to balance their budgets – must plug a total deficit of 125 billion dollars this year. Eager to introduce some of the budgetary discipline they promised during the election campaign, Republicans demand that public-sector unions do their share. Arguments in favor of reform are easy to find: the public-sector pension scheme, for example, faces a shortfall estimated between $1 trillion and $3 trillion.

With unemployment stuck at 8,9%, local public-sector unions and their long list of benefits (which include good job security, generous pension payments and health insurance coverage) are starting to be seen as a greedy, self-interested lot. Newt Gingrich, a potential presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2012, has called unions an elite defending their privileges.

The strength of unions – 36,2% of the public sector employees are unionized, compared to only 6,9% in the private sector – is often described as unjustified. New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg is threatening to sack 4,600 teachers unless unions accept that layoffs can be based on performance, not just on how long a teacher has taught.

The fact that public-sector unions are regulated at state level (contrary to private-sector unions, which fall under federal law, and the Wagner Act of 1935) helps governors twist the arm of union bosses. And what they ask for are quite stringent measures. In order to reduce Wisconsin's gaping deficit, which now stands at $3,6 billion, the Republican governor Scott Walker says he is ready to cut 21,000 public sector jobs. He also wants unions to renew certifications every year, to contribute more for pension programs and health insurance, and to relinquish all collective bargaining rights, except for salary.

In Ohio, which is facing a deficit twice as large, the governor John Kasich wants the same things, plus a suppression of the right to strike. In Indiana, legislators want to put an end to the rule forcing employees to join and pay dues to unions. They are thus attacking a unique feature of the American union system. It was thanks to this so-called system of "union shops' that truck drivers and car industry workers in the Midwest have become a formidable force.

Another reason behind the war against labor is that Republicans would like to suck the money out of unions. Lack of cash would not only bring unions to a halt, but would also force them to diminish their donations. That could troublesome for the Democratic Party, which has long been the main beneficiary of unions' largesse. During the 2010 and 2008 elections, the party pocketed some 600 million dollars coming from unions. A campaign aimed at weakening unions could therefore result in weakening Barack Obama's party right before the next presidential election. Considering the fact that the United States Supreme Court has recently lifted all restrictions on the amount of money that companies can give to their favorite candidate, poorer unions would be a further setback for Democrats.

Scott Walker and other newly installed Republican governors have largely benefited from the generosity of private donors during the last electoral campaign. The new Wisconsin governor would probably not be where he is today without the Koch brothers, billionaires who have made their fortune in the Kansas oil industry. Stalwart supporters of the Tea Party, Charles and David Koch want to see large-scale privatization throughout the United States and impose the "right to work," that is, the right to refuse unionization.

But unions will not give up without a proper fight. One of the banners hanging in front of the State Capitol in Columbus reads: "Walk like an Egyptian." That speaks volumes about the current mindset of the American labor movement.

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