Governors, Unions Brace for Battle

Union membership on the whole continued to fall in 2010, with only 11.9 percent of wage and salary workers across the country belonging to unions, new data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week shows. This is down from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year with similar data.

Reflecting on the downward trend, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said the current weak job market underscores the need for unions. "As workers across the country continue to face lower wages and difficulty finding work due to the recent recession, these numbers demonstrate the pressing need to provide workers with a voice in the workplace and protect their right to organize and bargain collectively," she said .

Public sector unions have escaped a comparable decline in their ranks, with 36.2 percent of state and local employees still in unions. But an increasingly loud chorus of governors and state legislators may change that. Like Solis, their argument is tied to the need for more and better jobs, but they blame public sector unions for jeopardizing that.

They argue that state collective bargaining laws have enabled public sector unions to artificially inflate the cost of government and suck jobs from the private sector by forcing businesses to pay higher taxes. To get the economy back on track, they say, these laws have to be modified or dismantled. This kind of thinking is sparking heated debate both in heavily unionized states, such as New York and Ohio, and in states where unions have fewer members and less clout, such as Nebraska and South Dakota.

The starting point for this debate varies dramatically by state. New York, for example, has the highest union membership rate among state and local workers, at 70.5 percent, and laws that guarantee unions the power to negotiate over everything from raises to pensions. Mississippi has the lowest unionization rate, at 7.4 percent, and lacks any collective bargaining rights for state workers or incentives for membership. Lobbying the legislature for concessions is the only tool available, and Brenda Scott, the president of the state's largest union representing public workers, says those efforts usually fall on deaf ears. "People around here hear the word 'union,' and they say, what do you mean? Credit union? No one even knows what a union is."

Not so in New York. When New York Assemblyman Robert Castelli announced his intention to reform the state's labor laws last year, friends on both sides of the aisle warned of political suicide since the unions are a force to be reckoned with in state politics. Still, the Republican sponsored a bill last year to repeal the Triborough Amendment, which guarantees union workers scheduled raises and other benefits, even during an impasse. "It's been talked about for years but no one had the nerve to propose it," he says. " It's like proposing in an open forum to dethrone the king."

Castelli and some business groups argue that the Triborough Amendment has dramatically increased the cost of government over the years by providing a disincentive for unions to compromise. It was installed in 1982 to counterbalance a new ban on public employee strikes, Castelli says, but the collective bargaining process has evolved in such a way that the scales now tilt too far in favor of public employees. Castelli's bill died a quick death in committee with only four colleagues signing on, but this year may be a different story. Both parties are supporting pension reform, but that depends on union support or state labor law changes, because pensions are negotiated under New York state labor laws.

Union leaders may be willing to come around to some concessions as a way to salvage the up to 15,000 positions that Cuomo has indicated might be on the chopping block. And one of Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo's top advisers has signaled that Cuomo may soon call for  freezing or completely repealing the Triborough Amendment. "We took that as some of the most encouraging news to come out of Albany in a decade," says Liz Feld, president of New Yorkers for Growth, a business group that is pushing for the repeal.

The new governors of Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin-all Republicans with Democratic predecessors-are gearing up for heated showdowns with unions in their states. A Stateline analysis of the new Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that these three Midwestern states have among the most heavily unionized public sector workforces in the country. There already have been a few early battles-in what are likely to become protracted wars-between these new administrations and public worker unions.

Eleventh hour tactics

In Wisconsin, the lame duck Democrat-controlled legislature and governor tried to ram through a set of more generous union contracts before ceding control of both chambers and the governorship to Republicans who, in many cases, campaigned on cutting state workers' pay and benefits. The contracts failed after Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker broke ranks with his own party. "Now that the voters of Wisconsin have spoken, I do not feel comfortable casting a vote in favor of these contracts," he said at the time. Governor Scott Walker has since angered unions with talk of everything from taking away some bargaining rights found in the state's labor laws to privatizing the state Department of Commerce.

In Iowa, the lame duck governor and legislature did approve new contracts before Governor Terry Branstad took over, and in response, a labor adviser to the governor recently released a report assessing the state's options for curbing union power. "The bottom line is this (agreement) was such a unique action and so large an increase that the state of Iowa's incoming governor asked me to write this report," says Leon Shearer.

The report has been controversial because its recommendations would significantly weaken unions and their legal protections, including the unions' right to negotiate for health benefits. In addition, Branstad has said that  to pay for the agreed-to contracts, he is reviewing all new hires for possible no-cause probationary period dismissal, including hundreds of employees who were brought on to fill key vacancies left after more than 2,000 long-time employees took an early retirement offer last summer.

And in Ohio, Governor John Kasich also has expressed a desire to change the states' labor laws. He has particularly targeted the practice of "binding arbitration," which requires some government employers to accept whatever an unelected arbiter decides when a negotiation reaches a stalemate. Kasich also has angered unions with talk of privatizing government services and plans to revoke executive orders issued by previous Governor Ted Strickland that allow home health and child-care workers to unionize.

A poll released last week indicates that Kasich's proposals may not be an easy sell with the electorate: More than half of voters said that eliminating or restricting the ability of state and local government employees to bargain collectively is "a bad idea."



Related Stories