WASHINGTON -- Speaking to a ballroom filled with mostly young conservatives, F. Vincent Vernuccio, a labor policy expert at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday what many of them already knew: Labor activists and Occupy Wall Street protesters generally loathe them, and they would be showing up en masse at some point to demonstrate in support of collective bargaining.
"I heard the AFL-CIO and Occupy Wall Street are targeting this panel," Vernuccio said at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, speaking on a forum on labor. "Do you know why? Because they're afraid of you. That is a badge of honor. From Wisconsin to Indiana, from New York to California, the forces of forced unionism and big government are losing. The lesson from around the country is that you are winning."
Despite its title, "Return of Big Labor: What Can We Learn from Wisconsin & Ohio?," the panel itself apparently was not being targeted by the AFL-CIO or any Occupy protesters, none of whom revealed themselves in the ballroom or outside the Marriott Wardman on Thursday. But both union officials and Occupy organizers say they have planned a number of protests at CPAC this week.
Occupy DC announced on its website that it will be staging a demonstration "in solidarity" with members of the AFL-CIO Friday at noon and again at 5 p.m. Some left-leaning students are also expected to carry out a separate demonstration inside the hotel that day, and Occupy protesters plan to march to the hotel from Malcolm X Park in Northwest Washington on Saturday.
The first demonstration on Friday is set to coincide with a highly anticipated speech by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), perhaps the most despised figure among labor activists at the moment. Many public-sector workers in Wisconsin lost collective-bargaining rights due to legislation championed by Walker last year. The governor is currently the target of a recall effort led by unions and their allies.
On the CPAC labor panel Thursday, Walker was predictably cast as a hero, with Vernuccio saying that the recall effort, disappointing as it is to see, merely indicates that the labor movement sees its "entrenchment coming under attack."
Steven Malanga, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, argued that the unions are pushing back so hard in Wisconsin because all of their power is at stake. "They can't allow these kinds of changes to stay in place," he said, or else the public "will become aware how these changes save money."
The panelists had a harder time putting a shine on the recent developments in Ohio. There, Republican Gov. John Kasich successfully shepherded through his own bill last year rolling back collective-bargaining rights for public-sector workers, only to see the measure undone by a referendum in November. Vernuccio said the loss there had more to do with marketing and branding than the underlying policy issues.
"People knew what was in the bill, and they liked what they saw," he argued. "We didn't have good talking points. We didn't message well enough ... When you have police and firemen saying the apocalypse will happen, it's hard to message against that."
Noting that Indiana recently passed right-to-work legislation, Vernuccio said Republicans will continue to battle with unions on the state level well beyond Wisconsin and Ohio, and he urged the conservatives in attendance to take up the fight.
"The other side is ramping up the rhetoric," Vernuccio said. "They're trying to intimidate, they're trying to shame, they're trying to strong-arm anyone that disagrees with them and can affect their privileged status. I'm confident no one in this room is going to let that happen."