by Jennifer Clark
A new development in the Wisconsin union story occurred a couple nights ago when Wisconsin’s Republican state senators discovered a roundabout way, without any of their Democratic colleagues present, to pass a bill that will strip collective bargaining for public sector employees in the state. The state senators took out the “financial” aspects of the bill and voted to strip collective bargaining rights from public sector employees separate from the budget bill. But banning collective bargaining will have financial ramifications—especially for family budgets.
Collective bargaining allows for workers to negotiate more effectively for things like higher wages and better benefits. Wisconsin’s bill limits collective bargaining over wages and eliminates the power to collectively bargain over benefits and pensions. Without collective bargaining, workers have fewer options for recourse against unfair wages or low benefits, issues women are more likely to face. As has been noted elsewhere, state and local public sector workers are actually paid less than their private sector counterparts, once their qualifications are taken into account, and as we pointed out last week, the majority of public sector workers at the state and local level are women.
Recently, the Wisconsin Women’s Council released a fact sheet showing that a staggering 71 percent of Wisconsin’s women with children under the age of six are working. This means that there are a lot of working mothers in Wisconsin–more than the national average of 60 percent. Not all of them work in the public sector, of course, but the same fact sheet also showed that the 56 percent of state government workers and 58 percent of local government workers in Wisconsin are women, and women exceed 60 percent of the state government workforce in 12 counties.
In general, lower women’s wages hurt families that rely on their earnings. Women workers still face a stagnant wage gap–regardless of private or public sector employment. But collective bargaining gives women a collective—and thus, effective—voice in wage disputes. In a recent projection for NBC News, IWPR estimated that it will take until 2056—45 years from today—until women’s wages catch up with men’s. The same NBC story noted that women represent the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households, underscoring the importance of women’s wages to family economic security.
If this trend to eliminate public sector workers’ collective bargaining power spreads to other states, the bills will have a disproportionate affect on families of color as well. Nationally, more than one in five black workers are public sector employees, compared to 17 percent of white workers. Although black women in the public sector have the lowest wages, the gender wage gap is actually five percentage points narrower in government (81 percent) than in the private sector (76 percent), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (The racial wage gap, as it happens, is also narrower in the public sector.) And five percentage points is not insignificant; remember that it has taken about 16 years (since 1993) to narrow the overall gender wage gap by five percentage points.
Families are already facing an uphill battle with the persistent gender wage gap affecting their household finances. In Wisconsin, female-dominated public sector professions will take the biggest hit from the new legislation and many of the women affected will be working mothers. The last thing these Wisconsin families need is one less way to improve women’s wages.
Jennifer Clark is the Development Coordinator with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
This post was updated March 11, 2011, at 2:25.