Nelson Lichtenstein: Is Wisconsin a Victory for Unions?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Nelson Lichtenstein is the MacArthur Foundation professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. He is the author of "The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business" and editor, with Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, of the forthcoming "The American Right and U.S. Labor: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination."]

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has won an important battle against public employees in his state, but the war -- and here we might justifiably call it the class war -- is far from over. By pushing through the state Legislature a bill stripping most public employees of their collective bargaining rights, Walker has become a hero to the Republican right.

But the outcome of this legislative melodrama is turning out to be of secondary import to the larger shift in political sentiment that the Wisconsin events have set in motion. The irony here is that as Republican officeholders attack public sector unions in Wisconsin and other Northern states that were once union bastions, including Ohio, Idaho, Indiana and Pennsylvania, public support for collective bargaining remains strong....

Right-wing assertions of a conspiracy between public employee unions and friendly officials represent a triumph of ideology over experience. Government officials, even those elected with union backing, have hardly been patsies when it comes to negotiations with state and municipal employees.

We've had plenty of union-management battles in the public sector, going all the way back to the strikes of teachers, garbage collectors, and social workers who led the way to the formation of municipal unions in the 1960s and 1970s. And in more recent years, tough bargaining sessions, full of layoff threats and midnight deadlines, have preceded the compromises that are embodied in virtually every public employee collective bargaining contract....

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