What are they fighting about in
Wisconsin, and what might this mean for California?

The battle in Badger State is on
many levels, but the closer you look, the less it seems to be about union
members’ benefits and the more it seems to be about union leaders’ ability to
mobilize organizational and political power.

Wisconsin public employees
traditionally have had generous benefits. Their health care contributions have
been about 5.6 percent of total premiums and they contribute only 0.2 percent
of their monthly pay to their pension plans.

Governor Scott Walker is proposing
to more than double state and school employee health care contributions to
about 12.6 percent of premiums, but that still compares favorably to, say,
California. According to the California Health Care Foundation, Californians
paid 27 percent of the cost of premiums in 2010 for family coverage. California state employees pay about 20 percent
of their health care premiums.

Governor Walker also proposes
Wisconsin state employee pay 5.8 percent of their monthly pay into their
pension plans.. Nationwide, the average private employee contribution from
take-home pay for retirement was 7.5 percent, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute. In
California, state employees pay eight percent to 10 percent
of their monthly pay to the pension program.

So the effect on union members is
material, but certainly mild compared with private workers and even public
workers in a tough-minded union stronghold like California.

But the effect on union bosses is
more profound.

Governor Walker proposes major
changes to the collective bargaining law. First, he would limit
the scope of bargaining, making unions less relevant to improving their
members’ compensation and conditions:

Second and most pertinent, the
proposal would make it far more difficult for union leaders to marshal the
financial resources to engage in political action to which many public employee
unions have grown accustomed.

These latter proposals go to the
heart of union organizing and political influence, which explains the intensity
of the opposition and the nationwide mobilization against these proposals.

Can this Midwest bonfire light up
California? Unlikely, given the Democratic hegemony in Sacramento and the
prohibitive obstacles to gaining approval for a statewide ballot measure
threatening labor interests. No sweeping statewide anti-labor ballot measure
has prevailed in California since before the ill-fated "right-to-work" measure
sparked the fortunes of the Democratic Party in 1958.

But past may not always be prologue. After all, Wisconsin can lay claim
as a birthplace more than a century ago to the Progressive movement, ushering
in the first wave of labor and welfare laws. Seeing a reversal of fortune for
labor in that state should remind us that the aspirations of rank and file
(c.f., Prop 13, Egypt) often makes fools of the experts.