Terry Hicks has been the president of the Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO for 17 years. He's also been a union member for more than 40 years. In 2009, Hicks published a book on the history of labor unions in La Crosse called La Crosse Labors. There are both public and private sector workers within the AFL-CIO.

Don Salyards is a professor of economy at Winona State University. He started his career at WSU in 1975, the first year a union was established at Winona State. Salyards is a public employee who is required by Minnesota law to be represented by a union. For 35 years, Salyards has been a Fair Share member of the faculty union on campus. This means he chooses not to be a member and therefore only pays 85-percent of the monthly union dues, and does not participate in union activities.

As you can imagine, both men have very different views on whether unions are relevant in today's society. We'll hear their thoughts and learn a little bit about the history of organized labor which today makes up about 12-percent of the work force in the U.S.

"Industrial unions started way back. And when you went through the industrial revolution, businesses got bigger and employees were often mistreated-treated. So there were historical reasons to have unions," said Don Salyards, Winona State University Professor of Economics.

In fact, in the late 1800s and early 1900s very young children were working long hours, women made far less money than men, and safety in the work place was a huge issue.

"Workers lives were thrown away they didn't care if you died inhaling coal dust, because there were no laws to protect you," said Terry Hicks, Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO president. "And if you died, they'd replace you with another body."

So, most people don't dispute the fact that historically unions fought for many of the worker protections we have today. But whether we still need unions to represent groups of workers to negotiate wages and working conditions, which we call collective bargaining, is what is being debated so passionately in Madison.

"So there were historical reasons to have unions. Most of those reasons are non-existent today. The kind of exploitation that happened 100 years ago doesn't take place today," said Salyards. "As we've gone from a manufacturing to a service economy and now a global economy, unions have just lost their relevance."

The Western Wisconsin union president disagrees.

"Every fast food restaurant in La Crosse has what I would call children working there from 16-17 years old," said Hicks. "We've had to fight for laws to keep those industries from forcing them to work longer hours without overtime still in this modern era."

And Hicks feels without unions, workers will be taken advantage of again.

"If we had no unions what-so-ever, would you like to be thrown on the world free market and have your wages driven down to 21 cents an hour like they are in China," asked Hicks.

Lisa Klein: "Do you think that's what would happen without unions?"