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In Union Attacks, Conservatives Trading Short-Sighted Gain for Long-Term Pain

(This article appeared in the March 31, 2011 edition of Progressive States Network's weekly Stateside Dispatch email. Sign up to receive the Dispatch in your email inbox here.)

Corporate-backed legislators and governors are sacrificing their future political prospects as they ram through increasingly unpopular bills attacking the middle class and economic security. While the greatest attention has focused on the dramatic story that is still unfolding in Wisconsin, equally important fights are going on across the country. In case after case, polls show public approval ratings plummeting for elected officials pushing legislation that scapegoats public sector workers and collective bargaining rights for their states’ fiscal problems. While some of these officials are moving to moderate their course to save themselves, others are pressing forward with a zeal that is likely to cost them politically.

In state after state where these fights are taking place, polls show that elected officials who support anti-worker legislation are viewed increasingly unfavorably by voters. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker’s numbers have dropped dramatically since being elected in November, with the percentage viewing him unfavorably growing by 18 points (to 53%) by early March. Even more importantly, the intensity of disapproval more than doubled in that time (from 19% to 41%) and among independent voters, who were key to Walker’s election, 59% now view him unfavorably.

The results have been similar for other new governors who have spent the first few months of their terms attacking workers and the middle class. In Ohio, 58% of voters now disapprove of the job Governor John Kasich is doing, including 61% of independents. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s approval numbers have plummeted to record lows, with only 33% approving and 50% disapproving. Independents, who voted for Snyder by a 40-point margin in November, now disapprove of him by double digits, and voters now say they would prefer his opponent by a 47-45 margin. Even more strikingly, a recent poll showed that Florida Governor Rick Scott, who narrowly won election in November, would now lose to his opponent by 20 points, 56-37.

As can be seen in the roundup below, the clear expression of public revulsion at the conservative anti-worker assault is beginning to split the right in some states, even as more and more attacks are being forced through chambers across the nation.

Recent Developments in the State-By-State Assault on Workers

In major news this week, the thirty-nine minority caucus members of the Indiana House of Representatives scored a major victory in their own Wisconsin-like showdown, demonstrating the power that a unified minority can wield in the legislative process (Indiana House rules require a 60% quorum for all votes on legislation). Legislators left the state five weeks after a so-called “Right-to-Work” bill was introduced, contrary to promises made by majority caucus leaders prior to the session. The legislators effectively blocked votes from taking place on all legislation in the House, forcing House leadership to make major concessions in order to get them back to Indianapolis. In the end, not only were they able to defeat the Right-to-Work bill, but conservatives withdrew a bill to permanently repeal public employees’ collective bargaining rights and severely curtailed the scope of a new private school voucher program they had proposed. Construction workers in the state, however, will likely see their wage standards and collective bargaining strength undermined by bills that are still likely to pass.

The Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill this week revoking the collective bargaining rights of all public employees in the state. The bill goes even farther than Wisconsin’s bill, which would allow police and firefighters to retain their rights. The Ohio House bill also surpasses the version passed in the Ohio Senate, with provisions forbidding annual salary increases, interfering with union dues collection, and mandating pay-for-performance for teachers. As Governor John Kasich and his legislative allies continue overreaching, their efforts may yet backfire as more moderate Republican senators feel pressure from their constituents. Senate leadership was only able to pass the original version of the bill through the unprecedented and controversial move of replacing a Republican member of the committee who intended to vote against it. If the bill does become law, it will likely be short-lived due to an effort to repeal it by ballot initiative in November; an effort is already under way.

Likewise, vigorous recall campaigns against eight Republican senators in Wisconsin are moving forward, which could result in partisan control of the chamber flipping as early as this summer. Governor Scott Walker himself will likely be subject to a recall campaign next January. Despite his slipping public approval numbers – a March 27 poll found 55% of people in Wisconsin disapprove of his job performance – Walker this week violated a restraining order against implementing the collective bargaining repeal law, cancelling the collection of union dues and raising deductions for health care and pension contributions from state employee paychecks. The judge who issued the restraining order warned the Walker administration on Tuesday that they were in violation of the court and could face sanctions:

I must state that those who act in open and willful defiance of the court order place not only themselves at peril of sanctions, they also jeopardize the financial and the governmental stability of the state of Wisconsin.

Despite this strong rebuke, administration officials stated their intent to ignore the court order and continue implementing the law.

Below is a quick roundup of legislation in other middle-class battleground states:

Florida: The House of Representatives last week passed legislation interfering with collection of union dues. The so-called “paycheck deception” bill would bar public employers from entering into collective bargaining agreements that provide for automatic dues deduction from union members’ paychecks, and it would cancel such terms in existing agreements. Similar legislation already passed this year in the neighboring state of Alabama, and is on its way to passage in Kansas. Paycheck deception bills have been introduced in eight other states, and may be in nearly a dozen others. The legislature is also considering bills that would shift the burden for funding pensions onto workers and ramp up privatization of prisons and other public institutions.

Idaho: Idaho is undermining the quality of public education through a trio of bills targeting teachers: bills stripping collective bargaining rights for teachers and instituting pay standards based on student test results passed in March; and a bill has passed in the House that would replace teachers with computers by redistributing funding for teacher salaries to classroom technology. Early in March the state also enacted a law undermining construction workers by barring the use of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) in government contracting. PLA clauses guarantee safety and wage standards on construction projects by requiring contractors bidding for them to enter into agreements with building trades unions that ensure labor disputes will not cause delays and cost overruns.

Maine: Maine conservatives, led by Governor Paul LePage, are ramping up their ideological attack on the very foundations of workers’ rights. In a move reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, LePage ordered a mural depicting Maine’s labor history removed from the state Department of Labor headquarters. Legislatively, a number of troubling bills have been introduced, including two bills to undermine child labor laws: LD 1346, introduced in the House, would lower the minimum wage for workers under age 20 to $5.25 per hour, increase the number of hours children under age 16 can work on a school day, and eliminate the cap on hours on days when school is not in session. LD 516 would enable employers to make workers aged 16 or 17 to work later, and raise the weekly limit on hours students can work.

Michigan: One of the most extreme pieces of legislation enacted this year has been Michigan’s “Emergency Financial Managers” law, which greatly expands the governor’s authority to declare municipal governments in “financial emergencies” and appoint agents to take over control of municipalities’ and school districts’ finances with almost unlimited power. These “emergency financial managers” would be able to cancel union contracts, merge school districts, privatize government services, and even strip local elected officials of most powers. Earlier this week, Governor Snyder also signed a bill that will cut unemployment insurance benefits in 2012.

New Hampshire: Mimicking the desperate measures being taken by conservatives in other states, legislators in New Hampshire last week inserted a late-night amendment to a budget bill that would strip state employees of collective bargaining rights. The New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a Right-to-Work bill in February, though they failed to get a veto-proof margin. Governor John Lynch has threatened to veto the bill if the Senate passes it.

Tennessee: Yesterday, a bill stripping teachers of collective bargaining rights narrowly made it through a subcommittee, with one legislator abstaining, forcing the House Speaker Beth Harwell to cast a tie-breaking vote. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick noted the difficulty in holding the caucus together in waging these attacks: “I think you have a couple of members, who are Republicans, on that committee, who feel like it’s not in the best interests of their districts to restrict collective bargaining. And I think they voted their conscience.”

Full Resources from this Article

In Union Attacks, Conservatives Trading Short-Sighted Gain for Long-Term Pain

Progressive States Network – Testimony at Hearing on State-by-State and Congressional Assaults on Workers’ Rights and the Middle Class
AFL-CIO – States of Denial
Economic Policy Institute – The Sad But True Story of Wages in America
Economic Policy Institute – The State of America’s Wealth, 2011
Economic Policy Institute – “The Teaching Penalty” (a report on public sector teacher salaries)
National Education Association – Threats Across the Country
We Are One – April 4 Day of Action

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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