Ongoing demon­stra­tions against Wis­consin Gov. Scott Walker’s pro­posal that would strip the state’s public employee unions of nearly all their col­lec­tive bar­gaining power have rocked that state’s capitol. Public employees from New York to Olympia, Wash., have held sim­ilar ral­lies. North­eastern eco­nomics pro­fessor Osborne Jackson, whose research focuses on labor eco­nomics and public finance, explores this polit­i­cally charged issue.

Should orga­nized labor see this as a broader attack on unions in general?

That depends on Gov­ernor Walker’s moti­va­tions. On the sur­face, there is a growing need to address bud­getary imbal­ances that sev­eral states are facing right now, espe­cially as fed­eral stim­ulus funding dries up. One approach to reducing spending is to try to limit some of the ben­e­fits that public employees have. On the other hand, I think the public unions’ view is that this strategy to address the budget unrea­son­ably limits their bar­gaining rights and com­pen­sa­tion, and that alter­na­tive plans could be explored. Without being inside Walker’s mind, it’s dif­fi­cult to know whether reducing the broader influ­ence of labor unions was an under­lying goal of the pro­posal, or merely a poten­tial byproduct.

What power does labor have to force the Wis­consin gov­ernor to back down?

I think what they’re doing now, striking, is def­i­nitely one strategy they can uti­lize. Public unions in par­tic­ular rep­re­sent workers — like teachers, police and fire­fighters — who pro­vide essen­tial ser­vices. Because there aren’t as many sub­sti­tutes for their ser­vices as in the pri­vate sector, they tend to have a fair amount of bar­gaining power. Striking is both a reflec­tion and uti­liza­tion of that power. Whether that strategy works, how­ever, is unclear. It may depend in part on the degree of public sup­port for the unions, which seems to still be mixed. While some tax­payers are strongly in favor of the union stance, others ques­tion the health insur­ance, pen­sions and employ­ment pro­tec­tions that public workers have, espe­cially in light of cur­rent labor market difficulties.

What do you think will happen?

At the end of the day, I think a lot of the dis­course is fairly polit­i­cally charged. Public unions have influ­ence in polit­ical leg­is­la­tion and cam­paigns, which may factor into opin­ions on this issue. At the same time, given the under­lying budget con­straints, one can argue for legit­i­mate aspects of the pro­posal. The reality is that there might be a bit of both moti­va­tions at work. Either way, changes to public sector employee ben­e­fits seem likely to result from all of this.  To what extent, how­ever, remains to be seen.