The Battle of Wisconsin

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 17 2011 9:36 AM

The Battle of Wisconsin

I've written before about the work Republicans want to do to scale back public sector unions and their benefits. Wisconsin, which elected a Republican governor and legislature (coincidentally, the new House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader are brothers) in November, is moving harder and faster on this than any other state. Jason Stein and Patrick Marley have the details on the GOP's plan; they report from Madison, which is now the scene of union-led protests.

It would require most public workers to pay half their pension costs - typically 5.8% of pay for state workers - and at least 12% of their health care costs. It applies to most state and local employees but does not apply to police, firefighters and state troopers, who would continue to bargain for their benefits.

Except for police, firefighters and troopers, raises would be limited to inflation unless a bigger increase was approved in a referendum. The non-law enforcement unions would lose their rights to bargain over anything but wages, would have to hold annual elections to keep their organizations intact and would lose the ability to have union dues deducted from state paychecks.

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This goes much, much further than reckoning with the size of public employee pensions. This is clearly designed, as Taft-Hartley was clearly designed, to make it impossible for labor to retain its strength. And this is happening in most states now; the table's set for cuts to public sector union benefits, so it's not altogether difficult for Republicans to go a little further, while they have the chance. (It's tough to imagine Wisconsin retaining its lopsided GOP majorities after 2012.) The difference between what states can get away with now and what the Democrats could get away with in 2009-2010 -- when they were always a few votes short of passing check -- is dramatic, but it's not new.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.