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Lou Cannon: Republicans Push Right-to-Work Laws Against Determined Opposition

Buoyed by hefty legislative majorities, Republicans in several states are pushing hard for right-to-work laws and other anti-union legislation. Democrats and their labor allies are pushing back, both in the legislatures and the courts.

The GOP marked a major victory this month as Wisconsin became the nation’s 25th “right-to-work” state. In signing a bill that passed along party lines, Gov. Scott Walker, a prospective Republican presidential candidate, said it “sends a powerful message across the country and around the world.”

Despite their nomenclature, right-to-work laws do not guarantee anyone a job; instead, they prohibit agreements between companies and unions that require workers to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment.

Republican-sponsored right-to-work bills have cleared the Kentucky Senate as well as the houses of representatives in both Missouri and New Mexico. A constitutional amendment has cleared both chambers in Virginia and will go before legislators again in 2016. If passed again there, voters will decide the matter on the November ballot.

In Illinois, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has issued an executive order allowing public employees to opt out of paying union fees. Ten counties in Kentucky have passed right-to-work ordinances.

These proposals renew the two-pronged anti-union campaign that Republicans launched in 2011 after they captured a score of legislative chambers previously controlled by Democrats in the 2010 elections. The GOP deepened its legislative control in last year’s elections.

One prong limits the collective bargaining rights of unions representing public employees. From Wisconsin, Walker led this battle, sponsoring legislation in 2011 that led to mass protests and a failed union-led attempt in 2012 to recall him from office. He was re-elected in 2014, his third victory at the polls in four years.

The Ohio Legislature in 2011 also passed a law restricting collective bargaining by public employees, but voters repealed the measure later in the year.

Right-to-work legislation is the other prong of the Republican anti-union drive. In 2012, GOP-controlled legislatures in Indiana and Michigan passed right-to-work laws. The Michigan measure also limited collective bargaining for some public employees. Later that year voters rejected a union-backed initiative to overturn it, and a lawsuit seeking to overturn it was unsuccessful.

Last Wednesday, almost a dozen unions, including the state chapter of the AFL-CIO filed a lawsuit in Wisconsin seeking to block the new law there from going into effect.

Right-to-work laws originally were the product of an anti-union backlash after World War II that involved racial politics in the South. In 1947 a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Harry Truman’s veto. It outlawed the closed shop, in which every employee of a business with a union contract was required to join the union or pay dues.

Armed by Taft-Hartley, all 11 states of the old Confederacy passed right-to-work laws, joined by several states in the Great Plains and Rocy Mountain West. Unions in industrial states successfully resisted such laws until the 2012 breakthrough in Michigan.

Despite the loss in Wisconsin, unions and their Democratic allies this year hold an edge on right-to-work in other states. Here’s an update of recent developments:

» In Missouri, the House passed a right-to-work bill by a 93-64 vote, well short of the two-thirds margin needed to override an almost certain veto from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon even if it clears the Senate. Unlike in Wisconsin, the Republican legislative majority in Missouri is not united. On the House vote, 23 GOP members joined Democrats in opposing the bill.

» In New Mexico, the Republican-controlled House passed a right-to-work bill mostly on party lines that includes a provision to raise the minimum wage to $8 an hour from $7.50. But the bills’ chances in the Democrat-controlled Senate appear dim, as the Senate Public Affairs Committee has tabled both of the New Mexico bills and is not expected to move forward on either.

» In Illinois, Rauner has tried to end run the Democratic-controlled legislature with an executive order that would allow public employees not to pay union fees. Unions have sued to block it. Rauner has also proposed “empowerment zones” in which local communities would decide if workers should be forced to pay union fees as a condition of employment. This plan also faces a legal challenge.

» Ten counties in neighboring Kentucky have approved right-to-work ordinances despite a warning from Democratic state Attorney General Jack Conway that the Taft-Hartley law permits only states to pass such measures. Another six counties are considering such measures. The state House of Representatives — the last of the 22 legislative chambers in the South controlled by Democrats — blocked SB 1, a statewide right-to-work proposal endorsed by the Senate in February. Nine labor unions have filed a federal lawsuit to block the ordinance in Hardin County, which is likely to become a test case for other Kentucky counties.

On a philosophical level, advocates of right-to-work present the issue as one of individual freedom for workers, whom they say should not be compelled to pay union fees. Unions say the issue is one of fairness: right-to-work laws create a class of “free riders” who receive union-negotiated wages and benefits without paying their share of the costs.

For businesses and workers alike, right-to-work is a pocketbook issue. Companies often wind up paying more when they have union contracts — and workers get less. There are also pocketbook aspects for public employees. The 2011 Wisconsin law that eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees also required them to pay more for health insurance and contribute a larger portion of their salaries to retirement. Take-home pay of public employees was reduced by 8 percent to 10 percent.

But Walker claims that forcing public employees to contribute more to retirement and health insurance has helped local governments save $3 billion and has enabled school districts to make reforms that increased third-grade reading levels and high school graduation rates.

Walker depicts himself as a heroic figure who successfully took on the power structure.

“The Big Government Labor Bosses will never forgive me for taking away their power, but we are doing the right thing,” Walker said in a fundraising email before signing the right-to-work bill.

Not everyone agrees.

“There’s nothing heroic about it,” John Alquist, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist who specializes in labor movements, said in an interview.

“There’s no Big Labor anymore. What the governor has been able to do is evidence of the weakness of labor unions after a long decline.”

The decline has steepened in the Badger State because of Walker’s actions. According to The Washington Post, the Wisconsin branch of the National Education Association has lost a third of its 100,000 membership, and the state employees union has lost 70 percent of its 70,000 membership.

Union falloff in Michigan in the wake of the 2012 right-to-work law is less steep although hardly insignificant. The percentage of workers in unions in Michigan has dropped to 14.5 percent from 16.6 percent. In Indiana, the percentage of union membership has actually grown — to 10.7 percent from 9.1 percent before the law.

Nationally, unions continue to decline, albeit slowly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that labor union membership fell 0.2 percent in 2014 to 14.6 million, which is 11.1 percent of all wage and salary workers. When the BLS first collected such data in 1983, the membership rate was 20.l percent of the work force and there were 17.7 million union workers.

Union membership is concentrated in the public sector, where 35.7 of all workers belong to a union. Only 6.6 percent of private-sector workers are union members and the rate is far lower in most right-to-work states.

Nonetheless, unions had several reasons to cheer in 2014. They won legal battles that extended union coverage to FedEx drivers and allowed unions to organize college athletes. Airport workers and pilots at three airlines — American, JetBlue and Virgin America — were unionized.

Union activists successfully campaigned in states and cities to raise the minimum wage, with Seattle topping out at $15 an hour. Influential Harvard University economist Larry Summers, not known as a union man, said that collective bargaining is a mainstay of national wage growth, which has been slim during the current recovery.

Right-to-work laws are a touchstone of partisan division. The business community tends to support such measures and the Republican lawmakers who propose them. Even more, Democrats in many states are heavily dependent upon labor unions for contributions and campaign workers.

Unions are not going away — and neither are the efforts to restrict them. This year’s battles over right-to-work laws in the legislatures of Missouri, New Mexico and Wisconsin are part of an ongoing national debate.

They also are the harbingers of fierce political competition for the electoral votes of these swing states in the 2016 presidential election.

Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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