The current assault on public unions — the last healthy sector of the beleaguered labor movement — is by no means guaranteed to succeed. The whole strategy, nurtured for decades by conservative activists and their corporate backers, smacks of serious overreach.
Put simply, it’s a radical move to strip unions of their collective-bargaining rights. And most Americans tend to be wary of radicalism.
Wisconsin is the laboratory, the perfect storm for this experiment. It has a double-digit budget deficit, a new Republican governor whose candidacy was heavily bankrolled by antiunion interests, and a new Republican legislature. The Wisconsin Republicans blame the public unions for the red ink, but their true aim, these last few weeks, has been to exploit the red ink for long-term political gain and export their success to Republicans elsewhere.
Gov. Scott Walker, in his second month on the job, seeks not only to extract economic concessions from these unions, but to bust them — by stripping their bargaining rights, barring them from using worker dues for political operations, and forcing them to stage annual elections on whether they should remain in existence. Interestingly, the public unions that represent police and firefighters would be exempt from these rules; perhaps it’s sheer coincidence that Walker has exempted the folks who endorsed him in 2010.
There was a time when Republicans would openly ridicule Rahm Emanuel, the erstwhile aide to President Obama, for his ’08 remark about how “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” but they have apparently embraced the credo. They spent two years assailing the Obama team for overreach, yet now, flush with their ’10 election successes, they’re risking the same behavior.
And the public is already weighing in. Gallup reported the other day that 61 percent of Americans don’t want to strip public unions of their bargaining rights; only 33 percent said yes to the Wisconsin idea. Most important, the point spread among independent swing voters was 62-31. In other words, even though Americans generally have mixed feelings about unions, they view emasculation as extremism. If Walker and his well-heeled backers — notably the industrialist Koch brothers, longtime financiers of antiunion think tanks — hope to win hearts and minds nationwide, it would appear that the bar may be higher than first anticipated.
Indeed, a number of Republican governors have already bailed on the crusade. In Indiana, Mitch Daniels said the other day the stripping of bargaining rights should be pursued in “a better time and place.” (He didn’t specify one.) In Pennsylvania, Gov. Corbett has stayed aloof. In Florida, Rick Scott said, “My belief is, as long as people know what they’re doing, collective bargaining is fine,” which, for a newly elected Republican, is akin to joining a picket line and singing about Joe Hill.
The GOP would ideally love to break the public unions — which represent 36 percent of all public workers — because they tilt heavily toward Democratic candidates. If those unions went away, pro-Republican corporate dollars would dominate the political process to an extent not yet seen, with a monumental assist from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that essentially freed up corporate largesse. (The playing field is already a tad asymmetrical; in the 2010 races, according to federal figures, 71 percent of all the political action committee money came from business PACs. Labor’s share of the total PAC money? Fifteen percent.)
For that breakage to occur, Republicans need to convince voters that their states have gone bust because of public-union greed. But the premise is flawed. There is no slam-dunk correlation.
North Carolina, for instance, bars its government workers from bargaining — yet it currently has the 10th-worst budget deficit in the nation, seven percentage points higher than unionized Wisconsin (and two points higher than unionized Pennsylvania). Indiana, which was pushing a bill to end collective bargaining until Daniels bailed, has the lowest budget deficit of all. In fact, of the 10 states that are reportedly in the best fiscal shape, eight (Indiana, West Virginia, Montana, Massachusetts, Delaware, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Michigan) are unionized.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to blame the Great Recession, and its still-resonating aftershocks, on the rampant Wall Street hyperspeculators — instead of scapegoating teachers, nurses, and other recipients of middle-class paychecks.
I wouldn’t presume to suggest that public unions have always been pristine. They often coddle bad teachers who deserve to hit the bricks. They can be arrogant, as evidenced by the ’70s incident in Pennsylvania when AFSCME leader Gerald McEntee declared, “Let’s go out and close down this goddamned state.”
But public-union collective bargaining has been encoded in our culture for a half-century — Wisconsin was the first state to sign on, in 1959; President Nixon boosted federal bargaining rights in 1969; Gov. Ronald Reagan legalized those rights in California in 1968 (there he goes again, confounding the conservative iconography). And it’s simply worth noting that the middle class in this country was strongest, and the income gap between rich and poor was narrowest, in the postwar decades when unions were healthiest.
What could be labor’s last stand comes at a time when a mere 6.9 percent of private-sector workers wear the union label, and perhaps it’s sheer coincidence that the current income gap between rich and poor is the widest since 1929. It should not be difficult, even for the message-challenged Democrats, to make the argument that an assault on public unions is an assault on the middle class, or to argue that the Wisconsin governor’s move to strip bargaining rights is an assault on fundamental American fairness.
Even the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, in the Wisconsin capital, said in a statement the other day that it would not endorse the GOP’s “adversarial way” — especially “given this state’s long history of collecting bargaining.” Such are the perils of ideological fervor. Labor may yet weather this perfect storm.
E-mail Dick Polman at email@example.com.