Could Wisconsin move against government workers happen in Washington?



Posted on February 17, 2011 at 7:48 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 17 at 8:35 PM

SEATTLE -- There is outrage in Wisconsin over a proposal to deal with that state's $3.6 billion deficit by ending collective bargaining for many government workers.

The bill by new Governor Scott Walker would also require public workers to pay more for health care and pension plans.

Could that happen in Washington state?

There are some differences. Walker is a Republican and Republicans control Wisconsin's state senate and assembly. Washington has a Democratic governor and Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature.

Republicans here have proposed eliminating collective bargaining as well, but the bill isn't going anywhere.

Still, state unions are paying attention to Wisconsin.

Just like Washington, Wisconsin faces a big shortfall. Even if Walker effectively eliminates collective bargaining, it's not clear that the immediate savings for Wisconsin's budget would be that big.

But it's the precedent that has unions worried. They fear it might embolden other states, especially those with Republican majorities, to push harder on wages and to get state employees to pay more for pensions and health care.

Facing a $5 billion shortfall, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire went to unions this year, negotiating furloughs and higher health care contributions from employees, even more than Wisconsin is asking.

Still, Republicans have criticized Gregoire for not going far enough and, if the budget problems drag on, there may be increasing pressure to get more concessions from state workers.

Democrats, who get a lot of support from unions, are speaking out. President Barack Obama on Thursday spoke out, along with members of his administration, saying this is not the time to demonize unions.

Wisconsin is a symbolic battleground. It was the first state to give collective bargaining rights to government workers and teachers back in 1959.