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02.23.11

16 States Going to War on Unions

With Wisconsin locked in a union battle, The Daily Beast looks at the 15 states that could blow up next and crunches the numbers to find whether they're really on shaky financial footing—or playing politics.

Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have toppled despotic governments, while Libyans are on the verge of doing the same. The stakes are not as high in Wisconsin and the 15 other states that have proposed or are expected to propose various levels of de-engagement from both public- and private-sector unions, but the spirit of the demonstrations throughout the Midwest has been as fierce as those in the Middle East.

Gallery: 16 States Going to War on Unions

At issue in the U.S. are the collective-bargaining rights of unionized public employees. States facing budget shortfalls and high debt payments want to curtail workers' collective-bargaining ability to in part gain flexibility in dealing with financial crises. Protesters in Wisconsin have found plenty of support and will be joined in solidarity Saturday by protests in every state capital.

By our count 16 states have proposed legislation similar to the bill cleared for vote last Wednesday by Wisconsin's Republican legislators, which would strip public-sector union workers of the right to bargain collectively about any on-the-job issue besides wages.

Political action from Democratic legislators and union supporters in Wisconsin, which in 1959 became the first state to allow public-sector collective bargaining, has spread to Ohio and Indiana ( whose governor shelved a "right-to-work" bill), and got us wondering whether these states are really on shaky financial footing, or whether this is all so much political wrangling.

Looking solely at the 16 states that have proposed or are considering laws to trim union rights, we first accounted for 2009 debt-to-GDP ratios, using Census numbers and data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Then we accounted for the percent of pension and health-care liabilities that are unfunded for each state, based on a study by the Pew Center on the States. Finally, because not all workers would be affected by proposed legislation, we accounted for the percent of people in public-sector unions out of total government workers in each state, with data from Unionstats. The average was taken for each category and each state's data were compared to the average, with equal weighting for each of the three categories.