Early in 2012, labor unions began a major political offensive aimed at regaining political initiative after a number of high-profile setbacks in 2010 and 2011. Focusing their efforts in Michigan and Wisconsin, two Midwestern states with strong union bases, their costly efforts to roll back efforts to challenge their power ended up costing them, leaving them worse off than when the year started.
In Wisconsin, labor unions poured thousands of people and millions of dollars into recall efforts to keep the GOP-held legislature and Governor from challenging their lock on state government. When the smoke cleared, Governor Scott Walker, along with most of the targeted legislators, survived recall campaigns. Efforts by labor unions to end Republican control of the Wisconsin legislature were short-lived as Republicans made good their recall losses by adding to their majority in the Wisconsin House and regaining control of the Senate in the November elections.
In Michigan, efforts by labor unions to lock in their power and blast their opponents out of power fell short. Their main effort, campaigning for a constitutional amendment that was aimed at keeping the state from enacting right-to-work legislation, failed by nearly twenty points on Election Day. Expensive efforts to target state legislators also fell short, including spending nearly a million dollars to topple the Republican House Speaker.
Emboldened by these victories, Michigan Republicans responded by pushing through right-to-work legislation, which ends the ability of labor unions to compel employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment in both private and public sector workplaces, following a move by Indiana, which became the first “Rust Belt” state to adopt right-to-work legislation earlier this year.
These political upsets were just the latest in a string of recent setbacks for organized labor which signify a growing erosion of the once-formidable power of labor unions:
• Republicans scored major gains in the 2010 elections at the state level, gaining control of eighteen additional legislative chambers, including several in heavily-unionized Midwestern states. Democrats were left holding just 38 percent of legislative seats in the Midwest, the lowest share since the 1950s. With the exception of Minnesota, Republicans were kept in control of their Rust Belt state legislative majorities in the 2012 elections.
• In 2010, voters in four states — Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah — adopted amendments to their state constitutions that protect the right of workers to decide union representation issues. These referendums were responses to failed federal “Card Check” legislation, which would make it much easier for unions to bypass the secret ballot process for organizing a workplace.
• A high-profile battle erupted with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the decision by Boeing to open up a 787 manufacturing plant in North Charleston, South Carolina. Following a House hearing, the NLRB dropped its case against Boeing and the new plant began operations.
• Leaders in other Democratic, union-friendly areas stood up to large public-sector unions, including Chicago and New York state, forcing concessions. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie built a bi-partisan coalition to push through legislation aimed at reining in benefits packages for state workers against strong union opposition.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder blamed labor unions for their defeats, telling MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell:
I asked them not to go forward. And the reason I said is, “You’re going to start a very divisive discussion. It’ll be about collective bargaining first, but it’ll create a big stir about right-to-work in addition to collective bargaining.”
Snyder’s sentiments were shared by Michael Lotito, a California labor attorney, who warned the Michigan defeat could be costly for unions in terms of money and political power:
The new law has “tremendous symbolism,” he emphasized, and will drain union coffers because unions can no longer require employees other than police and firefighters at unionized Michigan worksites to pay union dues.
The appointment of South Carolina Congressman Tim Scott to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Senator Jim DeMint will likely be another setback for labor unions. Given his record of going after unions and the NLRB in the House, Scott is expected to be a strong anti-union activist in a Senate where the White House has already had considerable difficulty moving pro-union appointees.
This chain of political setbacks, many in union-friendly states, combined with statistics about union membership from a report by the U.S. Department of Labor which shows labor union membership continuing to decline both in percentages of workers and total number of union members in the workforce, make it clear that unions are on the defense.
While labor unions remain on defense and are struggling to remain relevant in workplaces and the national political landscape, efforts to curb their power still have a long way to go. A majority of states have not adopted right-to-work legislation, labor unions continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on elections and the President and an activist NLRB are still working on their behalf. In light of this, Lotito’s warning that ”Organized labor is sick, not dead” seems wise advice for those working to shift the balance of power in American workplaces and political landscape away from labor unions.
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