COULD WISCONSIN labor pains come to Pennsylvania?

Around the nation, people are watching the battle in Wisconsin between newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the unions that represent teachers, social workers and other public-sector employees.

State workers have agreed to wage and benefit cuts to help fill a $3.2 billion budget shortfall, but Walker wants to go further - he wants to essentially eliminate the right of government employees to collectively bargain.

The fight has many people wondering if Gov. Corbett will try something similar to help balance the multibillion-dollar budget deficit in Pennsylvania. Here's a news flash: He already has. Although our new governor has indicated he won't try something as sweeping as the legislation in Wisconsin, he has backed several key proposals that would substantially weaken the power of organized labor in Pennsylvania.

The clearest proposal that targets public-sector unions is the push to privatize state liquor stores. Promoted as a way to generate a big chunk of money for the state budget and improve consumer choice, the change will also mean eliminating thousands of union positions in state government. The state liquor stores employ nearly 2,200 unionized employees, which is about 3 percent of all unionized state workers. If liquor sales are privatized, all of these employees will be laid off and most likely not be in a union if re-hired by a private store.

Another less obvious example is the bipartisan legislation to create a program that will allow low-income parents to get a voucher to send their children to a private school. Although this initiative is framed as a way to offer choices to students stuck in low-performing schools, it will also drain funding from public schools, which are unionized. The money will go to private schools where teachers do not have the right to collectively bargain, which means it reduces the number of union workers providing state-funded services.

These specific ideas, all strongly supported by Corbett and likely to make it into his first budget, don't directly attack the collective-bargaining process. But some conservative members of the Legislature are trying to build support for a more drastic measure. A package of bills sponsored by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, head of the State Government Committee, would transform Pennsylvania into a "Right-to-Work" state. The legislation would strip unions of the ability to collect dues from all employees in a workplace that had voted in an election to become unionized. That means the unions will have a lot less clout at the bargaining table with employers.

In the debate over public-sector unions, both sides make good arguments. It's no surprise that well-paid, well-pensioned state workers are going to come under scrutiny in the kind of severe budget crises that states are experiencing. On the other hand, diminishing public-sector unions will mean workers will lose jobs - and that leads to a whole other set of budget stresses. Compared with Pennsylvania, though, Wisconsin is handling this debate the right way: loudly, and out in the open.

Too bad the debate over Pennsylvania's lawmakers' generous salaries, pensions, health care and other perks hasn't reached the same volume. *