Walker’s win in Wisconsin spells trouble for unions in America

There’s no real political price to be paid for anti-union reforms

Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photo

Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election will be analyzed a lot for what it means for him—does this make him a potential Romney running mate, even if he’s said he doesn’t want it?—and for President Obama’s re-election prospects. But there doesn’t need to be much analysis of what it means for unions in the U.S.: whatever your opinion of unions, losing the Wisconsin fight is bad news for them.

Walker was one of a number of newly elected governors in the Republican sweep of 2010 who set out to pick fights with public employee unions. Though Chris Christie in New Jersey has a Democratic legislature and can’t make as many laws to restrict the unions’ power, he’s made attacks on government unions into a major part of his persona.

One of the reasons this strategy works is that it plays on what Walker himself, in a famous interview from last year, called a “divide and conquer” strategy. Even people who support private-sector unions are sometimes suspicious of the concept of government unions; up until Wisconsin established public-sector collective bargaining in 1959, many labour leaders were against the idea, and Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called it “unthinkable and intolerable” that government employees could strike against the government. And during the run-up to the Wisconsin recall, many reporters talked to working Wisconsonites who felt that the teachers’ and other unions were, as one person put it, “sucking off my teat.” Walker and Christie and others have demonstrated that there’s a certain bipartisan security in talking about overpaid teachers (but not firefighters and cops, who were deliberately omitted from the ban on public-sector collective bargaining).

But the difference between Republicans and anti-public-union liberals is that conservative Republicans have traditionally been suspicious of all unions, not just public unions. When Republicans took control of Congress after World War II, their most important act was to pass the Taft-Hartley act which made it easier for businesses to keep unions out, and this paved the way for “Right-to-Work” legislation and other laws that tend to discourage unionization. The South, in particular, is known for discouraging unions both as a matter of law and a matter of culture, and one of Walker’s big supporters among governors was South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, who has said that her state attracts business “because we’re a union buster.”

The big question now is whether traditionally union-friendly states will – when they get Republican governors and legislatures – act to dampen union membership in the private sector as well as the public sector. Though Walker has been careful not to support right-to-work legislation directly, he responded enthusiastically to a questioner who wanted him to make Wisconsin into a right-to-work state, saying that the crackdown on public unions was “the first step… that opens the door once we do that.” And in Indiana earlier this year, Governor Mitch Daniels signed a law making the state “the only one in the Midwestern manufacturing belt to have such a law.” Whether you support or oppose such laws, they definitely seem likely to become more common even in traditional bastions of unionization like the Midwest.

One of the reasons these laws will become more common is that they really do work in the goal of reducing union membership. Walker’s reforms of public unions, and particularly the removal of automatic collection of union dues, caused union membership to fall by more than half. For conservatives, this is a sign that the unions were coercive and that when people are given a choice, they choose not to participate; for liberals, it’s a sign that unions are being smothered in a sea of bureaucratic red tape. But whichever way you look at it, the law has succeeded in breaking the unions, and since Walker’s re-election demonstrates that there’s no real political price to be paid for it, his example is bound to be followed by others.

One of the political effects of this weakening of union power could be to make it harder for Democrats to win elections – or at least, for them to win elections without the support of the business community. To some extent, it’s already happened. President Obama got a lot of his funding from Wall Street the first time around (and is struggling more now that Wall Street has turned against him), and when he got into office, he didn’t expend much political energy on trying to pass a law that would have made it easier to unionize. When unions were much larger and more powerful in the U.S., they wielded a great deal of power over the Democrats and even some Republicans. Liberals saw this as a necessary counterweight to the power of big business; conservatives saw “big labour,” rather than “big business,” as the entity with too much power.

But today, labour unions simply don’t have much power. The Wisconsin election was another demonstration that when it comes to money and political influence, they no longer have what it takes to swing elections. Labour leaders are considered so insignificant that they don’t even appear on Sunday news shows the way George Meany once did. Liberals in the U.S. are already arguing, perhaps belatedly, about how to rebuild the labour movement or whether something else needs to replace it as the liberal counterpart of business. You can view it as a good thing or a bad thing, but the days of union power may be over – even if the Democrats win in 2012.

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