At the heart of the debate that's raging in Wisconsin right now is a basic disagreement about the legitimacy of unions, especially when it comes to the unions that represent government workers.
When public employees band together to bargain collectively, is it good for the public?
MPR's Morning Edition invited two guests to debate the issue on Thursday. Phil Krinkie, a former Republican state legislator, serves as president of the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota. Eliot Seide serves as the executive director of AFSCME Council 5. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is the largest public employee union in the state.
An edited transcript of the conversation is below.
Phil Picardi: Eliot Seide, we'll start with you: Why are public employee unions good for the public?
Eliot Seide: Public employee unions are about workers having a voice in the workplace. If you remember in 1968, there was a strike in Memphis, Tennessee of sanitation workers who didn't have the right to organize or the right to bargain. And they stood up with signs that said, 'I am a man,' because they were not even allowed to use the washroom at their place of work. These were African American workers. Dr. King came to support that strike. He died during that strike, and what that strike was about was not about a nickel or a dime, but about dignity and respect in the workplace. And every worker, public or private, deserves a voice in their workplace and dignity and respect when they go to work.
Phil Picardi: Phil Krinkie, what's wrong with letting public employees bargain collectively over wages, benefits and working conditions, just like workers do in the private sector?
Phil Krinkie: Well, the public employees have a voice. It's called the ballot box. The collective bargaining process is something that truly belongs in the private sector. Public employees have elected representatives there when it comes to wages, safety, hours, and work conditions, as well as benefits. That's where they should focus their time and efforts.
And again, every time public employees don't like what happened in the collective bargaining process, they immediately turn to their friends on the Democrat side of the aisle to change the law and not go through the collective bargaining process.
Phil Picardi: Phil Krinkie, do Republicans favor this effort because unions mostly support Democrats, come election time?
Phil Krinkie: Well, certainly there's a reason why in Minnesota they call it the Democrat Farm Labor party, but why is it at the forefront? Obviously, it's at the forefront for economic and financial reasons. Public employees have gained a great deal under collective bargaining.
We're seeing individuals in the private sector losing their jobs, losing their homes, and public sector employment growing. Public pensions are in deficit around the country. We can't just continue to hand over more and more money in terms of pensions, health care, pay increases, and the like, and think that we can sustain the economic viability of city, county, and state government.
Phil Picardi: Eliot Seide, care to answer that?
Eliot Seide: You know what? I love the fiction that Mr. Krinkie keeps creating. The facts just don't seem to matter. I mean we have study after study. We've got the Center for Economic and Policy Research. We've got the center for state, local government excellence. Public sector workers make four percent less than their counterparts in the private sector.
You know who the folks that Mr. Krinkie likes to dehumanize are? They're snow plow operators who keep your streets clean. They take care of the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill. They teach our kids in schools. They rush into burning buildings. These are folks who have spent their life in public service, and you know what? A life spent in public service is a life worth living. It's a life that ought to be lived in dignity. And collective bargaining is the way in which workers, public or private, have a right to dignity.
We're not going to allow Mr. Krinkie and his folks to pit public against private, to drive down wages for everyone, because that's what they want. Mr. Krinkie and his institute and all the folks, the cheap labor conservatives, they want minimum wages, low wages, low outcomes. And every state that has that has worse educational outcomes, more poverty, that's not the kind of Minnesota we want.
Phil Picardi: Eliot Seide made the charge that conservatives want to drive down wages for everyone. Phil Krinkie, how do you answer that?
Phil Krinkie: Obviously, totally untrue. As an employer myself, as any entrepreneur job creator wants to improve the benefits, improve the standard of living for their employees and for our communities and our state at large. I have no ill feelings toward any public employee. They provide terrific services. What we are looking at at the Taxpayers League, what conservatives across the nation and certainly here in Minnesota are looking for is economic growth, economic prosperity. They're looking for fairness and shared sacrifice for everyone, not just economic growth and prosperity for public employees.
Eliot Seide: I'm going to quote Ronald Reagan here. 'There he goes again.' You know what? We'd love to see shared sacrifice for everybody. Everyone needs to do their part, and we've been doing ours. We've been laid off. We've done wage freezes, but the reason this attack on public workers is happening (is) because it diverts the discussion away from the revenue problem that we have in our states and our national government, and that is that the richest Americans are not paying their fair share of taxes, but they want to divert attention from the fact that every middle-class American and every middle-class Minnesotans know that they're paying more in taxes, so rich people in this state can pay less.
Phil Picardi: Earlier this week, we asked our listeners the question, 'Could what's happening in Wisconsin happen in Minnesota?' Eliot Seide?
Eliot Seide: Well, you know there are bill after bill where the cheap labor conservatives are trying to take away the right to bargain of public workers, but the difference between Wisconsin and Minnesota is about 8,700 votes. And the 8,700 votes made Mark Dayton the governor of this state, and he came to the Capitol the other day and said that he supports the right of all workers, public and private, to collectively bargain, to have a voice at the bargaining table, and because of that, we're not in the same situation as our colleagues, our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin.
Phil Picardi: Phil Krinkie, had Tom Emmer gotten those 8,700 votes, would we be looking at a similar situation here in Minnesota?
Phil Krinkie: I sincerely doubt that we would be looking at anything of that particular nature. The contributions that public employees in Wisconsin are making to their health care benefits and to their retirement programs is significantly less in Wisconsin than it is in Minnesota, but what we're talking about here, both in the state of Minnesota and in the state of Wisconsin and many other states across the country, is a necessity to limit the growth of government.
Minnesota's budget for the next two years is projected to grow at 27.5 percent. There's no doubt about--. Mr. Seide says we're not growing government. Well, the facts and the figures on the paper are 27.5 percent growth. So we're not talking about reducing, slashing, cutting, eliminating. What we're talking about is slowing the growth.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)