Anti-Union Republicans Seize Their Moment
By Melissa Maynard, Staff Writer
When Wisconsin's polls closed in November and it became clear that a new Republican governor and legislature had taken complete control of a state long dominated by Democrats, it was clear to everyone that major changes for the public workforce lay ahead. The new governor, Scott Walker, made no secret in his campaign about his plans to battle the state's powerful labor unions head on. Walker said he would challenge not just pensions and health benefits but the ability of unions to influence the state's way of doing business.
Even so, the pace and magnitude of change for the state's public employees have been startling. No one guessed that within a few months, Wisconsin, the birthplace of AFSCME, the largest national union representing state workers, would rescind most collective bargaining rights for nearly all public employees at all levels of government. Nor was it expected that the new legislature would approve increases in required pension and health care contributions adding up to an effective 8 percent drop in take-home pay.
The measure was upheld this week by the Wisconsin state Supreme Court and will go into effect as soon as it is officially published by the secretary of state. Recall campaigns are underway against Walker and several legislators who voted for the changes. The recall votes will begin this summer.
But while Wisconsin captured much of the national media attention on workforce issues, similar scenarios played out, if less dramatically, in states with new Republican majorities all over the country. Other states made Wisconsin-like decisions not because they wanted to copy Walker's success but because their new Republican governors espoused the same political ideas.
The protests by public employees like the ones that occurred at the Wisconsin state Capitol echoed in nearly a dozen states where reductions in benefits or bargaining rights were under discussion. In general, Republican governors and legislators were not dissuaded.
In Ohio, Governor John Kasich worked with legislators to pass a sweeping measure known as Senate Bill 5 that generated nearly the same volume and intensity of opposition as in Wisconsin. Senate Bill 5 actually went beyond Walker's bill in that it did not include an exemption for police and firefighters. Altogether, it applied to some 350,000 public-sector workers.
Ohio's new law, which has also led to a highly unusual blend of court challenges and recall and referendum efforts, prohibits unions from deducting membership dues directly from workers' paychecks. It eliminates automatic pay increases and the right to bargain collectively over wages. It bans strikes. It also eliminates the practice of binding arbitration, which gives an independent mediator the final word on contract disputes that have reached an impasse. The right to negotiate over health care, sick leave and pensions was preserved.
Meanwhile, Tennessee and Indiana were enacting measures that restricted collective bargaining rights for teachers. In New Hampshire and Iowa, one legislative chamber passed significant constraints on collective bargaining rights only to see them die in the other.
Even as battles over bargaining rights dominated the news in labor-management relations, the more widespread changes for public employees involved reduced benefits. Lawmakers in half the states have cut public pension benefits so far in 2011, the third straight year in which legislatures have reduced the amount of money that government pays workers when they retire. Nine states imposed additional contribution requirements from current employees to their pension funds, and Florida began requiring them to chip in for the first time. Washington State ended automatic cost-of-living increases for current workers, an action whose legality is certain to be decided in the courts.
The one idea that failed to gain traction anywhere was actually cutting the pay of existing state workers. Proposals to do that were hotly debated in Alabama, Kansas and Texas, but eventually failed. Layoffs proved politically easier to impose: Florida and Texas each eliminated between 4,000 and 5,000 state positions.
The newly elected and emboldened Republicans who are leading the charge on all these efforts argue that states' fiscal health and ability to deliver key services has been put in jeopardy by overly generous public worker pay and benefits that are out of line with what most Americans receive. In an op-ed in the Washington Post that ran when the controversy in Wisconsin was at its peak, Governor Walker argued that under his plan, Wisconsin state employees will still be doing well compared to both federal workers and most middle class Americans. "My brother is a banquet manager and occasional bartender at a hotel," Walker wrote. "He pays nearly $800 a month on his family's health insurance and can put away only a little bit toward his 401(k). He would love the plan I'm offering to public employees."
Public sector labor unions, of course, see it differently, arguing that they are being unfairly targeted by Republicans as retaliation for their support of Democratic candidates. Public sector workers, they argue, have already been participating in "shared sacrifice" through furloughs and other concessions.
The same governors who are seeking cuts to pensions, health benefits and collective bargaining rights are pushing for additional tax breaks for businesses, complains Naomi Walker, director of state government relations for the AFL-CIO. "If this were really a budget issue, that wouldn't be happening," she says. The real purpose behind these changes, she and other labor leaders insist, isn't to streamline government; it's to improve Republicans' chances in future elections by weakening or eliminating public sector unions as a political force in American government.
Perhaps most worrisome for unions is that even Democrats have begun to move out in front on some of these issues, particularly when it comes to pensions and benefits. Labor scholar Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts, says the political dynamics have shifted so much that it's expedient for Democrats to be seen as taking a tough line against unions who in many cases helped elect them.
Contract negotiations in heavily unionized states with Democratic governors, such as Connecticut, New York and Oregon have taken on a far more confrontational tone than has been true in the past. In Connecticut, the governor got union leaders to agree to a wage freeze and cuts to health and retirement benefits for new employees only after threatening and even initiating the process of laying off 4,700 state workers. The concessions, which total $1.6 billion over the next two years, still need to be ratified by rank-and-file members.
In New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo is threatening to lay off up to 9,800 state workers beginning July 15 if contract negotiations don't result in the $450 million in savings that was assumed for the budget year beginning on April 1. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has vowed not to extend current agreements with workers if a deal isn't reached by July 1. In past years, existing contracts have been extended with little dispute when such deadlines have been missed. Employee contributions toward pensions and health insurance premiums are key sticking points.
New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, is going against his party to work with Republican Governor Chris Christie on a proposal that would eliminate worker bargaining rights over health benefits and force workers to pay twice or in some cases three times more than they currently pay toward the cost of their insurance. The proposal also raises the retirement age. If enacted in full, it would significantly decrease take-home pay for a large portion of New Jersey's public workforce.
National union leaders have not been shy about publicly voicing their disapproval with Democrats willing to depart from the party's traditional point of view on these subjects. "I don't care whether you're a Republican or a Democrat; I don't care whether your name is Scott Walker or Andrew Cuomo," AFSCME president Gerald McEntee told union members at a recent conference. "If you push to scale back retirement security…we will not be silent."
Union membership in private-sector industries has declined sharply in recent decades, as is widely known. But until now, public sector unions have largely escaped a comparable decline in their ranks: 36 percent of state and local government workers still belong to unions. But Clark University's Chaison argues that the laws being enacted in the states this year mark a significant turning point for public sector unions. Just as unionized auto workers in Detroit were blamed for the decline of the auto industry and for harming the state economy by not participating in "shared sacrifice," unionized public sector workers are being demonized, in Chaison's view, for the fiscal struggles of states and the decimation of state services.
"There's an element of vindictiveness," he says. Chaison describes the position of Republicans like Walker and Kasich as, "we're not only going to ask the unions to give back in bargaining, but we're going to intentionally weaken them, forever."