Are you confused by all the terms being thrown around in the Wisconsin debate over union rights and collective bargaining? Well, you’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know:

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act was passed in 1935 to protect and encourage the growth of the labor union movement. The NLRA guarantees employees the right to organize themselves to form or join a union or assist labor unions, to bargain collectively, and to engage in concerted activity for mutual protection.

Collective Bargaining – Once a union has been recognized by an organization, the NLRA provides for collective bargaining – a process where union representatives and organization management negotiate the employment conditions for the bargaining unit. Collective bargaining covers conditions such as wages, benefits and working conditions. Once negotiated and voted on, the conditions agreed to during collective bargaining are contained in the contract or collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Another bone of contention in Wisconsin is the idea of a Right to Work state. Governor Walker is recommending that Wisconsin become a Right to Work state, meaning unions no longer have the right to force employees to join the union as a condition of employment, either before or after hire. Currently unions in Wisconsin can legally have an employee fired if they refuse to join the union and pay membership dues.

Twenty-two states currently provide such protections for their citizens. With private sector union membership at an all time low (< 7%) union shops are a quick and some would say dirty way to ensure membership doesn’t decline further, but it makes it decidedly more difficult for those states to complete for new business growth.  If the Governor is successful, unions in Wisconsin will have to justify to their members the benefits of membership, and considering that the union has effectively killed every industry it ever got a strong hold in (automotive, steel, airline, etc.), that may prove to be an uphill battle.

The public sector is an entirely different animal however. With ~40% of public sector employees unionized, there is considerable reason for angst by taxpayers. Unlike the private sector where leaders are constantly concerned with responsibly bargaining to balance the needs of employees, and union and their profits for the long term viability of the organization, public sector negotiators rarely worry about such long term repercussions – after all, they’ll be gone when the union contract burdens come to light. Consider that labor unions spend millions of dollars (~$75 million was spent during the 2008 elections) each election cycle getting candidates elected who have favorable opinions of the labor movement. Once elected, they negotiate (collectively bargain) with the very officials they helped elect to secure collective bargaining agreements for their membership. Can anybody say – Conflict of Interest?

The changes voted on by the Wisconsin legislature do not remove employees’ collective bargaining rights as reported, but they do restrict collective bargaining to wages and working conditions. This move will help ensure that elected officials with a debt to pay do not negotiate terms and conditions associated with long term pension benefits that overly burden the tax payers 30 years down the road – long after their term in office is up.