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The Right’s War on Labor

February 15th, 2011  |  Matt Pavich

Following the results of the 2010 midterm elections, organized labor no doubt expected some hard times. After all, the Republicans had just captured the House of Representatives in a historic landslide, backed by supporters who argued that federal and state governments had grown too large and that pruning was needed. Politicians like New Jersey governor Chris Christie derided public unions as the scourge of the states and challenged them to fall in line or get left behind. Even Labor’s Democratic allies across the country, like Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, have decided that public employees needed to share in the national sacrifice and have cut personnel across the board. So Labor had to be prepared for a fair amount of unpleasantness.

Well, whatever Labor was expecting, it couldn’t have been anywhere near as bad as its current reality.

On the national level, Republicans have placed Labor firmly in their sights. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) has introduced legislation to require secret ballot elections in all representation elections in an attempt to end employer voluntary recognition of unions. Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA) has introduced a bill that would repeal the National Mediation Board’s new rule that refuses to count votes not cast in representation elections as votes cast against a union. This is despite the fact that if public office elections were conducted in Gingrey’s preferred fashion, no representatives would ever be elected. And the House Committee on Education and Labor kicked “labor” out of its title, when it adopted the new name of Committee on Education and the Workforce.

But as irritating as those attempts may be, they are unlikely to go anywhere. The Senate is still controlled by the Democrats and President Barack Obama remains in the White House. Truly anti-labor legislation is unlikely to become national law.

It’s a different story on the state level, however. In the last week, two Republican governors have announced plans to strip collective bargaining rights from their public employees. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is pushing a plan that would remove all collective bargaining rights from public employees, although they would still be allowed to collectively bargain over salaries. Under Walker’s plan, state employees would have to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover pension costs, while more than doubling their existing health insurance contributions. The bill would also exempt state and local entities from having to collect union dues, would mandate annual certification of bargaining representatives through a secret ballot, and would allow any employee to opt out of paying union dues. The bill isn’t entirely anti-union, however, as Walker thoughtfully excluded the only two unions, those representing police and firefighters that supported his election bid from his plan’s effects.

In Ohio, even the police and firefighters haven’t been spared. A new bill introduced by an ally of Governor John Kasich would take away the right of all public employees, including those in higher education, to engage in collective bargaining and would weaken binding arbitration to those employees, such as police and firefighters who are barred from engaging in strikes. In addition, the measure would take away the right to bargain for health insurance, would remove automatic pay increases, and would not consider input from teachers as to where they would teach.

That these bills seek to scapegoat public employees is bad enough. But the pain is compounded by the pugnacious and adversarial tone that these Governors have taken. Walker threatened to call out the National Guard, just in case the labor unions took to the streets. Kasich has dared the Ohio Legislature not to pass the bill, promising an even more draconian approach. These attempts to demonize public employees are unnecessary, but they are indicative of the scorn heaped upon public employees by too many on the right.

The view here is not that public employees are exempt from blame for the fiscal straights of the states. Public employee pensions have added dramatically to the budget deficits of many states. But punishing public employees for the benefits bestowed upon their predecessors, while it may feel good, is not a true solution to the crisis facing so many states. Reducing benefits is something that most public unions acknowledge as a necessity. But taking away the right of public employees to bargain for those reduced benefits seems less like fiscal prudence and more like an attempt to punish political opponents. And that isn’t good politics. It’s disgraceful pandering.

Finally, any discussion of the war waged against Labor could not end without a mention of State Bill 222. This remarkable piece of legislation would effectively do away with Missouri’s child labor laws and, while it would bar kids from working in blast furnaces or in mines, it would allow them to work a 40 hour week. The Missouri Republicans should be careful, however. Missouri is not a so-called “right-to-work” state and those kids who could be put to work might just be looking for someone to safeguard their interests. Someone like, say, a union.