Battle over union rights boils over
WASHINGTON -- The battle over unions -- public and private -- has been brewing for years. With the heat turned up by the recession, all it needed was a flashpoint to boil over.
It came with the 2010 elections, in which Republicans, many antagonistic to labor unions, won control of state legislatures and governor's mansions -- many in the Midwest.
The question then became whether battles would be focused on benefits that critics say were pricey giveaways during Democratic control, or whether emboldened Republicans would declare all-out war on labor.
Last week, protests reached a crescendo in Wisconsin and Ohio over efforts to end state workers' collective-bargaining rights that some argue brought some states to the brink.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has said repeatedly he has no interest in tampering with collective-bargaining rights. Even so, Michigan unionists rallied in Lansing last week and Saturday against bills they say amount to union-busting.
In Madison, Wis., Katrina Ladopoulous, an area teacher, skipped school to take her 4-year-old son to daily rallies at the Capitol.
"If we don't stand strong here, bargaining rights will fall," she said.
Union battle goes national
WASHINGTON -- Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is willing to make enemies: His budget plan picks more than its share of political fights. But his decision to stay out of a growing national fight over whether public employees should be able to negotiate hours and benefits, go on strike and otherwise collectively bargain may be wiser than he knows.
Michigan has a bigger percentage of workers who are union members -- 16.5% -- than all but California, Connecticut, New Jersey and Washington state in the continental U.S., according to the AFL-CIO.
Snyder is asking for concessions, and he's supportive of legislation that would give emergency fiscal managers appointed to oversee municipal finances the power to break contracts. But, as draconian as those measures might be seen among labor's friends, they are a far cry from what has been proposed in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, where more fundamental questions about the right to collectively bargain are being asked.
And some say that's a fight that, sooner or later, every state's chief executive may well have to take on.
"I don't think it's overreach," said Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum in Washington, D.C., and a policy adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain when he was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.
He wrote last week that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's got it right, that vastly limiting the scope of collective bargaining for government employees is necessary because elected officials shouldn't promise future benefits that taxpayers may not want to pay for.
"The record is filled with elected officials too willing to trade political support for increased wages and benefits," he said.
But the battle over bargaining rights is a product of its time, as much as anything else. State governments and unions agreed to contract terms when revenues weren't being squeezed as much; now, with the last recession's impact still shaking state capitals in lost tax collections, governments are flailing into fiscal turmoil.
A Republican wave captured several governorships and legislatures across the Midwest. Many of those incoming officials not only saw labor as hurtful to job creation, they questioned whether public employees -- at least some -- should have bargaining rights at all.
Now, said former U.S. Rep. Dave Bonior, a Mt. Clemens Democrat who has been a force in the labor movement for decades, it's clear to see from the protests that people are fighting back.
"Now they are waking up," he said. "It's heartening to see workers sit up and raise their voices and go to the streets."
With pro-labor protests being staged all over the country, it's as if the passion shown by the anti-government tea party has been has been transferred to unions and the left.
And it's not just union members. In the Wisconsin protests, students and people with no connection to unions joined the demonstrations.
"These people are my snowplow drivers, city workers and my neighbors," said Lisa Haberling, 35, who drove the six hours to Madison twice from her home in the northern Wisconsin town of Superior. "These are the jobs that my children might want some day. So it's really important to be here."
Kurt Paulsen spends his daily lunch hours at the state Capitol, walking the 10 minutes from his job as a professor at the University of Wisconsin.
"I don't belong to a union and never felt the need for one," he said. "But I'm here to support the workers."
Snyder's not the only one avoiding an out-and-out fight with labor. Florida's new GOP governor, Rick Scott, also is taking a more moderate approach.
Two weeks ago, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives worked on a budget bill slashing $60 billion this year. One amendment would have stripped funding for the National Labor Relations Board, which safeguards union rights.
It failed because some Republicans couldn't bring themselves to support it.
Out of Michigan's nine Republicans, five -- Dave Camp of Midland, Thad McCotter of Livonia, Candice Miller of Harrison Township, Mike Rogers of Howell and Tim Walberg of Tipton -- voted against it.
The Free Press asked McCotter's office about his vote, and a spokesman refused to comment.
Rogers' office provided one, however: "I opposed eliminating the National Labor Relations Board because it provides for a means of negotiating disputes."
The obvious point is that in Michigan and elsewhere, even reliably conservative voices aren't necessarily out to destroy unions.
'Where the numbers are'
Much of the fight over time has been whether employee unions hurt employment. Certainly, the labor-heavy manufacturing base in the Upper Midwest has taken a beating in recent years, as jobs moved to the right-to-work South.
A Free Press analysis of government records shows that of the 20 states with the greatest increase in per-capita income between 2000 and 2009, 12 are right-to-work states. Only three -- Wyoming, Virginia and North Dakota -- were among the top 20 in per-capita income.
Meanwhile, much of the battle has switched from private to public sector unions. The reason is clear: That's where the membership has moved.
As of 2009, there were about 8.7 million people covered by public sector unions -- slightly more than half the total number of people covered by all unions. In 1983, those covered by private-sector unions made up 65% of the total. Since 1983, 4 million fewer people are represented by unions.
"That's where the numbers are," Harley Shaiken, who studies labor and economic issues and teaches at the University of California-Berkeley, said of what he called Wisconsin and Ohio's "frontal assault on unions in the public sector."
It's less in those states, he argued, about negotiating concessions -- in Wisconsin, union members have agreed to accept reductions -- than it is about permanently changing the balance of power by stripping rights of workers to bargain over what they pay for health care, the hours they work and their pensions.
Lou D'Abbraccio, a tea party member from Racine who rode a bus to Madison on Feb. 19 to rally support for Walker, offers the counter message to union supporters.
"The unions can't say they'll abrogate 1,100 contract agreements out there," he said, referring to the unions' claims that they will give in on the pension and benefit proposals. "The only way to fix the budget is to implement the end of collective bargaining, so government will have the flexibility to make necessary changes."
He sees no reason to compromise.
'An ax to the table'
It could be a tough fight.
Shaiken said the more-tempered approach by Snyder, Scott and some other governors shows that Walker and others may have overreached.
A USA Today/Gallup poll last week, while showing a slim 53% majority opposed cutting pay and benefits for state workers, also found 61% of U.S. voters opposed eliminating collective-bargaining rights for state unions -- including 62% of self-identified independents.
"Most independents want differences sorted out around the table," said Shaiken. "Scott Walker has taken an ax to the table."
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said Walker has badly miscalculated the reaction to his proposal as tens of thousands of placard-carrying, slogan-shouting, drum-beating protesters show no signs of quitting.
"There's just this attitude that compromise is a bad word," he said. "I had hoped that Gov. Walker was not cut from that cloth, but he seems to have been co-opted by the tea party."