It's Crunch Time for Organized Labor
Labor unions are facing the most direct challenge to their political and financial clout since Ronald Reagan broke the air-traffic controllers union 30 years ago.
Across the industrial Midwest, a union stronghold long vital to Democrats and key to President Barack Obama's re-election prospects, Republicans are trying to roll back the powers of not just public-employee unions but also the bargaining and dues-collecting power of groups that represent auto workers and carpenters.
Democratic members of Indiana's House of Representatives refused to show up for work Tuesday, in an effort to block debate on a Republican-backed "right to work" bill that would give employees the ability to opt out of paying union dues even in a union-represented shop. Such laws are in force in 22 states.
Democratic members of Wisconsin's Senate continued their boycott of the legislative session, effectively blocking action on proposals to curtail bargaining power for state public unions. Gov. Scott Walker said 1,500 state workers could lose their jobs by July if his proposal doesn't pass.
Republicans in Michigan, meanwhile, are working on a bill to make the home of General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. a right-to-work state.
Lawmakers in those states and Ohio have sparked widespread protests with proposals to restrict longstanding collective-bargaining rights or to weaken the grip of private-sector unions that represent more than a million workers.
The actions follow elections last fall that put GOP governors and Republican majorities in charge of statehouses across the region. Several of the new governors ran campaigns promising to go after public union benefits and to weaken their bargaining powers.
Gov. Walker and other Republicans say they have no choice as states struggle to cover huge budget gaps. Gov. John Kasich, who is pushing a similar measure in Ohio over heated union opposition, says the moves are not an attack on unions, but an effort "to restore some balance."
"We have finally elected people who are doing what they said they would do," said U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, the newly elected Republican from Wisconsin, who supports efforts to trim labor's powers. "I certainly hope that voters will stand by Gov. Walker when he makes these tough decisions."
Some Republicans and conservative groups also argue that pro-union laws and policies are putting states in the industrial Midwest at a disadvantage in competition for jobs with right-to-work states, where unions are weak and they cannot compel workers to join or pay dues.
"Being a right to work state would bring jobs to Indiana," said Republican State Rep. Jerry Torr, a sponsor of the right-to-work measure in Indiana.
Government figures show that inflation-adjusted per capita income in six right-to-work states increased at a 6.9% annual rate over the past 10 years. In contrast, incomes contracted at a 0.5% rate in six unionized upper-Midwest states over the same period, as many high-paying automotive and other manufacturing jobs disappeared and foreign auto makers concentrated nearly all of their new investment in right-to-work states.
Still, Wisconsin's unemployment rate in December 2010 was lower, at 7.5%, than the jobless rate in some right-to-work states such as Texas, at 8.3%, or Alabama, at 9.1%, according to Labor Department statistics.
Democrats and labor leaders are denouncing the legislative moves as an effort to dismantle the labor movement and deprive the Democratic Party of one of its largest sources of money. Unions spent about $400 million on ads and get-out-the-vote efforts to help elect Mr. Obama and other Democrats in 2008.
"Stripping away workers' rights is something we cannot as Democrats allow to happen," said Wisconsin Democratic Senate minority leader Mark Miller, who fled the state Thursday in his 2002 Chevy Prism.
AFL-CIO Chief Economist Ron Blackwell says unions are prepared to bargain over financial issues. But proposals to curb or end collective-bargaining rights "pose an existential threat to collective bargaining in the public sector," he said.
The Republican and Democratic parties have plunged into the Wisconsin fight. The Democratic National Committee has revved up its network of activists and helped bus protestors to Madison, as have conservative groups on the other side. Unions are funding advertisements opposing the Republican legislation.
President Barack Obama last week criticized Gov. Walker's proposal to curtail union bargaining rights. But the president's spokesman, Jay Carney, on Tuesday declined to comment further on the Wisconsin or Ohio situations. Mr. Obama visited Cleveland Tuesday to promote his jobs agenda with small business owners. Meanwhile, demonstrators converged in Columbus to protest a legislative proposal to strip most collective-bargaining rights from the state's 400,000 public employees.
Some Republican leaders in the region are expressing reluctance to support measures that would undermine private-sector unions' ability to collect dues. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, has said he preferred to avoid the distraction of a fight on the issue this session. Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has distanced himself from a similar proposal.
Democrats say Republicans are over-reaching, and contend that the legislative battles have injected energy into their ranks that could undermine support for Republicans in key swing states like Wisconsin and Ohio.
Union leaders backed losing candidates across the upper Midwest in 2010, and have so far struggled to benefit from anxiety about job security and wages.
A Rasmussen poll released Monday found that 48% of likely voters supported Gov. Walker in the ongoing face-off in Wisconsin, while 38% sided with the unions. But a Gallup/USA Today poll conducted Monday found that 61% of Americans could oppose taking away collective-bargaining rights in their states.
Other polls have found an overall ambivalence about the role of public-sector unions. A Pew Research Center survey done just before the Wisconsin fight found that 48% of Americans held favorable views of public-sector unions, while just under half told an earlier Pew poll that they favored cutting public-sector pensions to help curb state budget deficits.
At the same time, the ranks of unionized government workers have continued to swell, along with the size of their pensions and benefits. Even while promising to go after the government unions, Mr. Walker last November got the support of more than a third of all union households in Wisconsin.
Labor experts say the Wisconsin fight could have an impact on unions at least as lasting as President Reagan's firing in 1981 of 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers. That move permanently weakened the threat of labor strikes by making it easier for private-sector employers to hire replacement workers.
In 1981, about one in five U.S. workers belonged to a union. By 2010, the share in a union had dropped to 11.9% overall. But more than half of those union members work in public sector jobs, where the unionization rate in 2010 was 36%, federal data show. In the private sector, unionization has fallen below 7%.
Despite slumping union membership over the years, Wisconsin holds a central place in the history of the U.S. labor movement—which is one reason the fight there has gotten so hot. It was the first state to pass an unemployment insurance law, in 1932, and the first, in 1959, to give workers the legal right to collectively bargain.