PBS Need To Know: Are public employee unions to blame for states’ budget woes?

This week the battle of Wisconsin reached a new level of drama, state Senate Republicans pushed through a bill stripping public employee unions of collective bargaining rights. The Republicans acted while Senate Democrats were still out of the state. The uproar of this legislative fight continues.

But lost in the heated rhetoric over the maneuver was a simple question: In Wisconsin, and other states, is it fair to say that wages and benefits earned by unionized public employees are a major contributor to state budget crises?

Since he took office, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker insisted that state employee unions must lose benefits and collective bargaining rights so the state can balance its budget. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich is proposing to strip public union workers of the right to negotiate health care and pension benefits. He has said collective bargaining rules can bankrupt cities, which then have to turn to the state to bail them out. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels rescinded collective bargaining for state workers the minute he became governor. He says those unionized workers have become “the new privileged class.”

In all, 13 governors have proposed layoffs, or cuts in pay or benefits for state employees. And it’s not just Republicans — Democratic governors, like Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York have also put state workers on notice.

But are state employees just a convenient scapegoat, or are they are at the root of our state’s budget problems?

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