According to Gov. Scott Walker (R), though, it is something else entirely. It is a foundation for the substance of his budget-cutting plans: containing labor costs including public-employee pensions and health-care expenses. Media reports suggest that unions have agreed to some concessions to help close the state's budget gap, but Governor Walker has insisted that collective bargaining could easily undo those core reforms in years ahead.
Many economists say the needed fixes can be made without new constraints on collective bargaining. But other budget experts argue that union bargaining power is a central part of the problem – and Wisconsin isn't the only state where new constraints on bargaining are up for debate.
But beyond that, are the pension and health costs of union employees really a budget buster for states?
Yes and no. For the most part, states aren't facing an immediate fiscal crisis due to public-employee benefits – and Wisconsin certainly isn't. But states do face a rising tab, and many are far from on track to meet those promises.
As a result, the question of paring back compensation for union employees has come up in numerous other states from New Mexico to Ohio, and even in Wisconsin – one of the better-prepared states – the issue is a genuine one for statehouse debate.