Republicans Challenging Unions In State Capitols
Republicans who swept into power in state capitols this year with promises to cut spending and bolster the business climate now are beginning to usher in a new era of labor relations that could result in the largest reduction of power in decades for public employee unions.
But as massive public protests and legislative boycotts in Wisconsin this week have shown, the Republican charge can be fraught with risk and unpredictable turns as politicians try to transform campaign ideas into action.
The question GOP governors and lawmakers are now facing is exactly how far they can go without possibly alienating voters they won over in the midterm elections last fall. Do they merely extract more money from school teachers, prison guards and office workers to help ease their states' budget problems? Or do they go at the very core of union power by abolishing the workers' right to bargain collectively? Do they try to impose changes by steamrolling the opposition, or by coming to the bargaining table?
"The consequences will be rolling forth for many, many years," said James Gregory, director of Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington. "The battle lines have been drawn and will be replicated around the country. This is going to be very tough for unions and public sector employees."
In Wisconsin, new Republican Gov. Scott Walker is going for it all – the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees plus sharp increases in their health care and pension payments. His plan advanced quickly to the Republican-led Senate, despite several days of protests that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol. Then Senate Democrats suddenly fled the state, bringing the legislative process to a halt.
Friday, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, urged people to show their support for Walker in what he described as "a defining moment for our country and the conservative movement."
But some Republican governors want to avoid a showdown. "That's not our path," said new GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who won election in neighboring Michigan, also on a pro-business agenda. He said he wants costs savings, too, but "I and my administration fully intend to work with our employees and union partners in a collective fashion."
Wisconsin is the first battleground between Republicans and unions. But it is unlikely to be the last.
A similar proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights drew throngs of protesters Thursday at the Ohio Capitol. Hundreds more have demonstrated in Tennessee and Indiana, where Republican-led committees have advanced bills to restrict bargaining rights for teachers' unions. And governors from Nevada to Florida have been touting the need to weaken union powers and extract more money from government employees to help balance out-of-whack budgets.
The confrontation comes as organized labor is reeling from a steady loss of members in the private sector. The public sector, with about 7.6 million members, now account for the majority of workers on union rolls, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Among union leaders, a sense of crisis is growing. Labor is preparing to spend at least $30 million to fight anti-union legislation in dozens of states, according to internal budget numbers reviewed by The Associated Press. They're lobbying local officials, organizing public rallies, working phone banks and buying television and newspaper ads in a desperate attempt to swing public opinion.
"Plans are being put into place to silence workers, lower their wages, cut their benefits and increase the likelihood that they will suffer injuries and fatalities at work," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "It is happening at a breakneck pace and too little attention is being paid."
Labor plans to spend large amounts of money on battles in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Unions see their goal as not just playing defense – as opponents chip away at bargaining rights – but going on offense to try to educate the public about the role of unions.
But last fall's midterm elections, which brought the defeat of many union-supported candidates and victories by pro-business Republican adversaries, show the difficulty the unions face in a climate shaped by the sour economy. In many states, Republican governors have blamed unions in part for the state budget crisis by negotiating flush benefit packages for public workers that have forced states to slash aid to schools, social services and important services.
Wisconsin's legislation, for example, not only would eliminate collective bargaining rights but also force public workers to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage – increases the governor calls "modest" compared with those in the private sector. It's projected to save $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, citing an estimated $8 billion budget gap, wants to restrict union rights for state workers and in townships, cities, counties, school districts and publicly funded universities. The legislation would generally eliminate salary schedules.
Kasich drew support from local tea party leader Ted Lyons, an electronics executive from Troy, Ohio, who said the proposed union changes are long overdue. "The labor unions have become so powerful now on a worldwide basis," Lyons said. "It's beyond just the benefits of the membership, it's about all the spending."
Although it exploded to the forefront with the 2010 elections, the Republican challenge to labor unions had been quietly gaining momentum in recent years. When Republican Matt Blunt took over the Missouri governor's office in 2005, for example, one of his first acts was to rescind an executive order from a Democratic predecessor granting collective bargaining rights to public employees.
Many union leaders contend the latest efforts have less to do the budget crisis than simple political retribution.
"What you're seeing is the same old politics as usual – elections take place, and politicians who get elected then use their newfound power to try to punish their enemies or organizations and individuals who didn't support them," said Jeff Mazur, executive director of AFSCME Council 72, which covers Missouri and Kansas.
Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Kathy Barks Hoffman in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report. Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Mo., and Hananel reported from Washington, D.C.