The Fight for the Labour Movement in the United States

1) Snapshot of the issues


The Governor wants to restrict public sector unions to bargaining solely over wages, eliminating their ability to bargain over health care, working hours and vacations. Moreover, he wants to require unions to win an employee election every year to continue representing workers. The bill has passed the House but not the Senate; Democratic Senators are refusing to show up, to prevent the bill passing.


Republicans are proposing a bill that would wipe out Ohio's nearly 30-year-old collective bargaining law. The Senate bill would eliminate collective bargaining rights and salary schedules for public employees across the state and allow hiring alternate workers during a strike. It would also end binding arbitration, an option favoured by the police and firefighters, who are not allowed to strike.

Republican Governor John Kasich has expressed his support for the bill in concept, but he has also signalled he may bring forth his own plan that could go even further - including banning public employee strikes.


A law that would abolish collective bargaining rights for teachers has passed a State Senate committee.


The Indiana state Senate has approved a proposed law that would limit the power of teachers' unions. Several other proposed measures would weaken organized labour, most notably legislation that would bar any requirement that employees in unionized, private sector workplaces pay any union dues or fees.

New Jersey

New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie has gained national fame by beating up on public school teachers.


States that are considering either weakening or removing entirely the ability of public sector workers to bargain collectively include Wisconsin, Ohio, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Oklahoma.


Legislative proposals in both Wisconsin and Ohio would bar unions from requiring non-members covered by union contracts to pay dues.

Teacher tenure

Teacher tenure is being targeted in five states: New Jersey, Nevada, Indiana, Idaho and Florida. Laws that would allow parents, by petition, to "trigger" an entire school district to move to charter schools or to voucher programs are expected in at least eleven states.


Measures to dismantle benefits for government workers are expected in some form in all fifty states. Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush, meanwhile, are pushing to allow states to declare bankruptcy, which would enable them to break their agreements that cover the pensions of hundreds of thousands of retired government workers.

Right-to-work legislation

Right-to-work legislation, which makes it illegal for employers to agree to have union membership or the equivalent dues payments as a condition of employment even when a majority of workers vote to form a union, has been filed in twelve states. This is in addition to the twenty two that already have such laws on the books.

In Virginia, the right-wing decided that the existing right-to-work law wasn't sufficient, and introduced a measure to embed the right-to-work provisions in the state Constitution.

Three more states - Montana, Ohio and Wisconsin - are expected to introduce right-to-work legislation this term.

Political action

Alabama passed legislation in January that bans public employee unions from collecting dues unless the unions first prove that none of the money will be used for supporting election campaigns. In every subsequent year after the initial certification, the union must submit itemized reports accounting for how its money is being spent.

This law has been introduced in four other states this year including Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri. In California there has been a ballot initiative proposed that would do the same.

Unions are expecting twelve more states to file bills or initiatives banning the collection of union monies for politics.

Prevailing wage laws

Building and construction unions are facing their own daunting line up of bills that would gut prevailing wage laws and what are known as Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). These measures facilitate collective bargaining and the division of labour for unionized construction jobs, particularly construction jobs with public financing. It is expected that some twenty states will change their legislation to ban PLAs. In Iowa the new governor undid PLAs with his first executive order.

The new governor of Ohio, John Kasich, has pledged to eliminate prevailing wage laws. Missouri's legislation to ban prevailing wages has been introduced, and the new governor of Maine appointed the head of the building and construction industry organization to the position of state legislative director, a sure sign that he's serious about eliminating such laws. The AFL-CIO says it anticipates anti-prevailing wage laws in fifteen states.


At the same time, a push to privatize public assets and services is mounting. Groups like In the Public Interest are working to hold back the privatization tide, but the momentum is on the other side.

2) What's going on?

Emboldened by November's election results, corporations and their right-wing allies have launched what they hope will be their final offensive against America's unions. Their immediate target is government workers' unions.

It isn't as if these types of attacks on unions are new; what's different is their scale, and intensity. After outspending unions in November's election by an estimated 4 to 1 margin, corporations and their allies are exploiting the fiscal crises across the nation to drive a stake into the heart of what is left of organized labour: public sector unions.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Annual Report for 2010, the overall union membership rate in America continued its slide, dropping from 12.3 percent to 11.9 percent. The private sector has just 6.9 percent of its work force unionized, while in the public sector, 36.2 percent of workers have unions. The public sector, in other words, is labour's last stronghold.

Embedded in the Wisconsin debate is a more fundamental dispute over the role, even the legitimacy, of public sector unions. The right wing argues that unions are not appropriate in the public sector because they can interfere with the democratic right of lawmakers to govern unimpeded.

But they are also well aware that hitting the public sector unions hard will weaken unionization in the US.

Grover Norquist laid out a sort of blueprint for the current right-wing assault in the February 2001 American Spectator. Identifying labour unions as the first of "five pillars" of Democratic strength, he outlined a game plan for destroying union power, key to the right's larger mission of abolishing all regulations that impede its agenda, from environmental laws to occupational safety to affirmative action.

The stakes for both political parties in this struggle are high, because where the campaign to gut public sector unions succeeds, Republicans will be poised for almost certain electoral gains. In general, across the nation, the lower the rate of unionization, the more Republican the state.

And in the most Democratic states, the public sector dominates the union scene.

In New York, for example, the most unionized state, the rate among government workers is 70.5 percent, next to 13.7 percent in the private sector. In California the unionization rate among government workers is 56.6 percent, compared with 9.3 percent among the private sector workforce.

There is a strong correlation, moreover, between Republican states, right-to-work laws, an overall worse quality of life for the average worker or poor person, and a more hostile climate for progressives, from environmentalists to civil rights activists.
Republicans have done a thorough analysis of this strategy of attacking the public employee unions, and it works in their favour politically:

1. It helps balance state budgets by hurting a small proportion of workers (6% of 124 million total US workers are members of public employee unions) even after many unions have given up pay raises and other concessions over the last few years. Instead of spreading the responsibility to pay for the cost of government services to all taxpayers, this approach lays it solely on one sector.

2. The workers it hurts tend to vote Democratic, and unions have supported Democratic candidates steadfastly since FDR. Cutting union membership and wages reduces dues going to the unions, and weakens their ability to make donations to Democratic candidates. On the other side, the conservative-led Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case in January 2010 cleared the way for America's biggest corporations and pro-corporate organizations to contribute untold millions directly or indirectly to Republican campaigns.

3. It garners the support of the Tea Partiers (and their shadow supporters), who want to cut $100 billion out of the federal budget this year no matter who it hurts.

4. Attacking public unions hurts all workers, because strong unions set a standard of pay and benefits that non-union employers follow. Unions also reduce wage inequality because they raise wages more for low- and middle-wage workers than for higher-wage workers, and more for those less educated workers. The GOP's corporate masters want to keep their workers' wages and benefits low to maximize their profits and bonuses.

Not about budgets

Citing an anticipated budget deficit of $137 million this year and a $3.6 billion shortfall over the next two years, the Governor of Wisconsin argues that his measures to curb union power and bargaining are essential to help balance the budget.

Union leaders say that several of the Governor's proposals, including the one that would require elections each year to determine whether a majority of public employees want to keep their union, are really intended to cripple unions, not balance the budget.

It's clear that Governor Walker picked this is fight for the specific purpose of breaking the unions. Wisconsin had a surplus, and as soon as he was sworn in, Walker gave it away to special interests in order to put the state into deficit.

The governor has framed his assault on public workers' collective bargaining rights as a needed measure of fiscal austerity during tough times.

The reality is radically different. Firstly, rolling back workers' bargaining rights by itself saves almost nothing on its own. But Walker's doing it anyhow, to knock down a barrier and allow him to cut state employee benefits immediately.

Furthermore, this attack on the public sector unions comes less than a month after the state's fiscal bureau - the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office - concluded that Wisconsin isn't even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

"Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond his control," says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future - a public interest think tank. "He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts... so he could rush through these other changes."

The Koch Brothers

The billionaire Koch brothers David H. Koch, and Charles G. Koch have long used their wallets to promote fiscal conservatism and combat regulation.

The president of a right wing think tank, Americans for Prosperity, Tim Phillips, has publicly argued that the Wisconsin cuts were not only necessary, but they also represented the start of a much needed nationwide move to slash public sector union benefits. What he did not mention was that his Virginia-based nonprofit group, whose budget surged to $40 million in 2010 from $7 million three years ago, was created and financed in large part by the Koch brothers.

The state chapter of Americans for Prosperity organized buses for hundreds of Wisconsin residents to go to the Capitol to support the governor's proposals.
State records also show that Koch Industries, their energy and consumer products conglomerate based in Wichita, Kansas, was one of the biggest contributors to the election campaign of Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Even before the new governor was sworn in last month, executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown, Mr. Phillips said in an interview on Monday.

"We thought it was important to do," Mr. Phillips said, adding that his group is already working with activists and state officials in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania to urge them to take similar steps to curtail union benefits or give public employees the power to opt out of unions entirely.

This all amounts to proof of the expanding role played by nonprofit groups with murky ties to wealthy corporate executives, especially the Koch brothers, as they push a decidedly conservative agenda.

"The Koch brothers are the poster children of the effort by multinational corporate America to try to redefine the rights and values of American citizens," said Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, who joined with others in the union protests.

Campaign finance records in Washington show that donations by Koch Industries and its employees climbed to a total of $2 million in the last election cycle, twice as much as a decade ago, with 92 percent of that money going to Republicans. Donations in state government races - like in Wisconsin - have also surged in recent years, records show.

The Koch brothers helped finance conservative candidates in the fall campaigns through their company's political action committee, which spent $2.5 million, as well as through advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity.

Many candidates they supported, including a number backed by the Tea Party, gained election as part of the Republican takeover of the House.

Common Cause, a liberal advocacy group, has filed a petition with the Justice Department challenging the Citizens United ruling which made limits on corporate spending in elections illegal, and arguing that Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas should not have taken part in the case because they had attended the Koch brothers' annual retreat as speakers and were biased.

Common Cause depicts the Koch brothers as symbols of the "unbridled corporate power" that they maintain was loosed by the Supreme Court ruling in the campaign finance case, which lifted a ban on corporate spending in elections.

"This is a critical moment for us," Mary Boyle, Vice President for Communications at Common Cause, said in an interview. "The Koch brothers embody this ability to tap vast corporate profits and influence policies that undermine the public welfare."

She said the Citizens United case had given the Koch brothers and others license to create "shadowy networks" of well off but largely anonymous donors to further their agenda.

NUPGE, Wed Mar 9 2011

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