When we spoke to Carol Davis Zucker, partner at Las Vegas’ Kamer Zucker Abbott, last month, we asked the attorney, who represents Nevada companies in labor disputes, about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s introduction of a bill that would end almost all collective bargaining for most public workers. Walker has since signed the bill into law, but lawsuits are preventing it from being put into effect. Since there’s no telling what will happen before publication of our Q&A with Zucker in July’s Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine, here’s an excerpt of her response from the interview on March 2, 2011.
What are your thoughts on the current situation in Wisconsin?
I am not one of these labor lawyers that doesn’t believe in collective bargaining. I think it depends on the workplace, and it depends on the dynamic as to whether you really need a union to be in between the employees and the employer. There are some workplaces where I think the employer sort of made the bed a little bit, from either the dynamics or the way they train and guide their managers in terms of needing collective bargaining. One of our jobs is to try to avoid that happening where it can, but I think ultimately people need the choice and the public sector is so different than the private sector. …
In the private sector, those who either loan a business money or the people who buy an interest in your company, they expect a return on that profit. If they don’t get it, the money’s not going to be there. If you can’t pay off your bank loans, your business is not going to be there. If you can’t make money to cover all your costs and to pay all your salaries and your wages, you’re not going to have a business. So in the private sector, the dynamic on collective bargaining works really well because there is a place where you have to stop in negotiations. If you get to an impasse on your economic or other proposals, there are things you do: Ultimately, you can lock the employees out; you can get to a point where you can do a unilateral implementation. Or the employees go on strike. And I’ve been through strikes.
That model does not work as well in the public sector, because the ability to strike usually is not there, nor is the employer’s ability to lock out employees. Those who make the decisions, to agree to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, do not have the same immediacy of the effect of their decisions because they do not have to try every day to turn a profit–they are committing tax dollars.
Because of [my travel in] Israel I pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in the Middle East, and I’ve noticed that the empowerment of some of the people in Egypt has led some to demand higher wages of their employers. [They’re] threatening to walk off the job. There’s no tradition in some of these countries of labor unions, collective bargaining, of on-the-job workplace dispute resolution. It’s really interesting how now that people feel empowered politically, they also feel empowered in other ways. They probably need to evaluate how they’re going to do some of this, how good of a model are they going to select if they’re going to get these trade unions in some of these countries. You don’t hear about unions in Egypt, particularly public employee unions in Egypt. I kind of juxtapose that with Wisconsin, where I’m not sure that the politicians have always well-served their communities or their state in terms of how they’ve done this. Somebody has to say, “No, this is what we’re going to agree to and this is why we’re going to agree to it,” and not let this stuff get so out of hand that it threatens your government entity.
Then, of course, you have the people on the other side, in Egypt, who are saying, “We want to be paid more money and we’re going to walk off the job if you don’t [pay us].” Maybe they need to have collective bargaining there. Some of my friends who are labor lawyers are going, “Carol, you’re crazy,” and I’m saying, “How else are you going to do it? Are you going to have a strike every day because people come in and they don’t feel they’re paid enough and this is all done ad hoc?” Like I said, I think there are workplaces where unions and collective bargaining probably is the best way. And then there are some where they are not.
It’s kind of a disjointed argument, but it’s unfortunately kind of tied up with my arguments about what’s happened here with some of the employee unions that have just been so unrealistic. We had plummeting tax revenues in 2009 and early 2010 and we had unions coming in and wanting very large raises. I think they should be realistic. On the other hand, [the union’s] job is to advocate for their employees, for their members and for the members of the bargaining unit.
Look for more from Zucker on her travels, the personal challenge of work-life balance, and why she always stops at the U.S. Supreme Court gift shop in the 2011 edition of Mountain States Super Lawyers, out in July.