Politicians Try to Union-Bust Their Way to the White House

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is greeted by members of his staff and cabinet during a post-election day gathering at the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison, Wis., November 5, 2014. John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP

Fiery labor icon Mother Jones cannot be resting peacefully beneath the crabgrass in the Union Miners' Cemetery, not far from Springfield, Illinois, where Bruce Rauner, the recently elected Republican governor, has launched an unprecedented attack on organized labor. Rauner, a former private equity fund chairman, made a reported $62 million in 2013, the year before he was elected. Now the Harvard MBA is challenging public and private unions on several fronts—even pushing the state's municipalities to create "right-to-work zones," where workers in unionized jobs could opt out of paying union dues. This town-by-town approach is a relatively new idea and may be of dubious legality, but it's already caused Cook County, where Chicago is situated, to preemptively declare that it won't go along.

Rauner is part of a clique of Midwestern Republican governors challenging unions in a region where behemoths like the United Auto Workers and massive public employee unions covering teachers and other state employees have long dominated. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker diminished the power of the state's public employee unions in 2011 by pushing through a law that cut their benefits and limited their collective bargaining power.

That move, and his survival of a union-led recall effort in 2011, not only propelled Walker into the first tier of Republican presidential candidates; it also emboldened conservative governors and legislators around the Great Lakes. Governor Rick Snyder made Michigan a right-to-work state in 2012, and Indiana's governor at the time, Mitch Daniels, followed suit, creating a bloc of anti-union states in what was once a labor stronghold. Their latest victory: Last month, Walker signed a law making Wisconsin the nation's 25th right-to-work state.

Rauner's efforts in Illinois are getting the closest scrutiny. That state is an unlikely launch pad for a crusade against union power. It has been a solidly blue state in presidential elections since 1992 and had not elected a Republican governor since 1998 until Rauner, a longtime friend of Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor who had also worked in private equity, won office last year. Conservative journalist Stephen Moore called the political newcomer's campaign "the biggest election of 2014." Illinois, he wrote in National Review, "could become a laboratory experiment about whether conservative ideas can work in a state that has been ruled by...unions and a self-serving political machine in Springfield and Chicago."

Once in office, Rauner issued a "Turnaround Agenda" that begins with this premise: "Government union leaders are funding politicians who negotiate their pay and benefits." To put an end to that, Rauner issued an executive order challenging collective bargaining agreements with state employees and urged municipalities and counties to create their right-to-work zones.

Rauner frames the issue as one of freedom and local control. The governor says he wants Illinois communities to decide whether "their businesses should be subject to forced unionism or employee choice." Forced unionism is a familiar phrase among opponents of collective bargaining, but it's also a misleading one. If a majority of workers vote to form a union, then it's customary for workers to be compelled to pay dues as a price for being in a union. Those who don't want to join the union are required to pay something so they aren't getting a free ride. By giving workers the prerogative not to pay union dues, right-to-work laws undercut the power of unions.

Hoping to spur municipalities to take on public-employee unions, Rauner sent right-to-work resolutions to all of Illinois's cities and villages. A municipality can just insert its name and vote on it. It's a smart strategy since the Illinois statehouse is solidly Democratic and won't pass a right-to-work law. Setting fires in small towns might arouse anti-union sentiment, and it will surely inflame the unions. Last week, unions packed a meeting of the Oswego County board in northern Illinois, where the nonbinding resolution was up for discussion. Scott Roscoe, president of the Fox Valley Building Trades Council in Aurora, told a local journalist, "If we don't stop anti-worker schemes like right-to-work, more families will fall behind."

Anti right-to-work protester Susan Laurin (C) of Michigan State Employees Union Local 6000 yells with fellow protesters outside of Michigan's state capitol building in Lansing, December 11, 2012. Rebecca Cook/Reuters

So far, no Illinois communities have voted to become right-to-work zones. Three local legislative bodies have decided not to approve the resolutions, one without even holding a hearing. And there's some question as to whether the adoptions of such zones is legal. (The National Labor Relations Act seems to give this kind of authority to states and territories, but not towns.)

Rauner's efforts come amid a long-term, oft-noted decline in union membership from about 35 percent of the workforce in the 1950s to just over 10 percent today. But while many unions, especially those in manufacturing, have hemorrhaged members, those representing public employees have done well, thanks to their protected status. That has changed, however, as cash-strapped municipalities and states have started to look at cutting pensions and contracts to balance budgets.

American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Lee Saunders, whose 1.6 million members now face unprecedented political challenges, told Newsweek that all this union busting is helping union organizing. He says membership was up by 140,000 last year. "I think it's obvious to anyone trying to earn a living for their family today that the system is rigged against working people," he said in an email. "AFSCME members and activists are having thousands of one-on-one conversations in workplaces and living rooms all around the country about why unions are the solution to the barriers working people face in today's economy."

Those conversations haven't dissuaded Republican governors and even some Democratic mayors to take on AFSCME. While state and local governments always want to save money in contracts with municipal employees, they have even more incentive to do so now. The national economy is reviving, but state and local coffers are still recovering from the Great Recession, and politicians are negotiating harder. Democratic mayors like Emanuel in Chicago and former mayor Chuck Reed of San Jose, California, tried pension reform, despite howls of outrage. Emanuel's closing of nearly 50 mostly minority schools to save money drew the wrath of the teachers' union, and its disapproval is one of the factors that forced him into a runoff election.

This struggle over collective bargaining isn't new. Business vs. labor was a defining, often violent, battle of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Strikes, riots and deaths were commonplace. (Mother Jones is buried alongside miners killed fighting owners in the late 19th century for better conditions and pay.) A Texas oil lobbyist in the 1930s dreamed up the "right-to-work" law to keep Southern blacks from organizing on the oil fields. Texas became the first right to work state in 1943. Michigan became the 24th in 2012.

Some progressives believe the current wave of union bashing is an attempt to scapegoat labor for the failed trickle-down economic theories behind Wall Street's disastrous 2008 meltdown. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist blames unions for the economic demise of America's heartland cities, but concedes that the Great Recession's disastrous effect on city and state treasuries gave anti-union activists a chance to go after collective bargaining. "Detroit was one of the richest areas in the country that began to decline in the 1950s," he says. "You can work with a reasonable labor union, but the [United Auto Workers] bragged that thanks to their contracts, 100,000 more guys worked than were needed. Can you imagine that? You can't compete with Japan and Germany like that."

Industrial labor, Norquist says, learned a lesson from Detroit. But he believes public employee unions have not because they are protected from competition. "At some point, the UAW came around and understood that the only way to have jobs is that you have to sell cars."

The union bashing could also be a preemptive strike should any 2016 Democratic candidates play the class-war card in an era of historic income inequality. A massively funded conservative industrial complex aids the likes of governors Rauner and Walker in their union busting. One of the most effective groups challenging organized labor is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which wrote Michigan's right-to-work law and has created a task force aimed at city and county public employees. The ALEC's right-to-work laws are now in force in 13 Kentucky counties.

All that activity takes money, and Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council 31 in Illinois, says Rauner's efforts are supplemented by "unprecedented resources" and "an incredible level of coordination" involving anonymous donors funding a network of self-described "policy institutes" now operating in every state. She also says the Illinois governor harbors "pure, unalloyed hatred and [a] Darth Vader destruction fantasy" toward the state's unions, and predicts Rauner's "dangerous obsession" will backfire with Illinois voters. "We have a $4 billion deficit in this state, and he has no plans to address it. He spends his time running around the state every day launching attacks on unions. That's how he spends his time."