The political events underway right now in Wisconsin are very important. But the fight over Scott Walker's proposed restrictions on public employee collective bargaining has reached such a fever pitch that the pundit class is in danger of overstating the stakes. Walker's reform proposals are less novel than you might believe, given all the attention they have drawn.
The truth, as laid out in a GAO report from 2002 (see pages 8 and 9), is that
there are already 12 states with no public employee collective bargaining law
at all. In these states, state workers have no right to collective bargaining;
local employees have collective bargaining only if local elected officials
choose to grant it. (And in a few states, notably Virginia and North Carolina,
state law forbids localities to allow collective bargaining.) Another 12 states
grant collective bargaining rights only to certain classes of employees, such
as only state workers or only teachers. Only 26 states have a collective bargaining law covering nearly all public workers.
So that means that the model from which Walker proposes to break, much to the horror and outrage of public worker unions and their backers, is a model only actually followed by 25 other states. And indeed, by retaining limited bargaining rights for most workers (and fuller rights for a few classes, including police and firefighters) Walker is going less far in restricting public-sector collective bargaining than a substantial number of states already do.
Walker's reforms will have a significant, positive impact on
the ability of Wisconsin and its localities to manage employee compensation
costs, and a victory in Wisconsin may inspire reforms in a number of other
states. But the big picture is that America already has a patchwork of public
sector bargaining laws that vary widely from state to state, and that will
still be true in two years, regardless of what happens in Wisconsin.