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What Wisconsin says about labor unions' clout in America

The clash that led Wisconsin to limit the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions was fed by a mix of a tea-party-backed Republican resurgence, the fiscal crisis facing state governments, and the unions’ fight to preserve power. Here are seven questions the Wisconsin union protest raised about the role of unions in the US.

Massive crowds gather to see the 14 democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker as crowds continued to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison Wisconsin March 12, 2011.
Reuters/Darren Hauck
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1. Collective bargaining was the key sticking point in Wisconsin. Why is that such a big deal to unions?

Without it, unions wield little power. Workers in any state can organize and lobby employers, but unions need the right to exclusively represent those employees and negotiate on their behalf to accomplish anything.

Moreover, the measure proposed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) and passed by the Legislature also makes public-sector union dues and membership voluntary, and requires workers to recertify the union every year.

"It's hard to see how a union could survive under those circumstances given how little they could contribute by collective bargaining," says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

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