Why the 2016 GOP race may be all about taking down unions

 Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is emerging as a strong potential candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination largely because he took on the public-employee unions in his state. If he wins the White House because of his union-busting chops and for pushing right-to-work laws, maybe he’ll abolish the U.S. Labor Department, too.

Yet the kind of labor movement Walker loves to bash is probably the only thing that can save what’s left of our middle class. It may, however, already be too late.

Even in the union heartland, the Midwest, labor has been getting a shellacking. Since 2013, not only Wisconsin but also Indiana and Michigan have passed right-to-work laws.


 Such laws keep unions from collecting dues or force them to accept lower payments in lieu of dues called “fair share” if the people getting the union’s service choose not to pay.


Protesters supporting public-employee unions occupy the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, late into the night March 9, 2011. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson

Of course, the union still has to perform — federal law requires the union to represent those in the bargaining unit whether the union is paid or not. Such service — which may include hiring lawyers to fight a discharge in arbitration — the union must perform for free.

But something bigger is happening: Labor is starting to think outside the box. It is hard to get across to Americans the weirdness of the U.S. labor model — the idea that a union can only bargain if it is the “exclusive representative” of everyone. In most countries, labor is never the exclusive representative. Nor does it have to be a majority. Instead, a union can bargain, strike or disrupt with 40 percent, 20 percent or just whoever supports it.

Why don’t Americans do it the way that way, too? It would not take a new law. Just a change in the way the old Wagner Act — the New Deal law that gave workers the right to bargain — is interpreted. For years, the standard view has been that employers have no legal duty to bargain unless the union is the exclusive representative. It is not clear, however, that the Wagner Act means this at all. The National Labor Relations Board could just re-interpret the law.


Volkswagen employees work on the assembly line of the 2012 Volkswagen Passat in Chattanooga, Tennessee, December 1, 2011. REUTERS/Billy Weeks

In Chattanooga, for example, Volkswagen is still talking to the United Auto Workers even though the union lost the election to organize the factory. So the UAW is not bargaining for everyone– but it can at least bargain for the 40 percent who voted to be in the union.

Meanwhile, the aim of many leading Republicans now seems to be to de-fund labor: to starve it of money so it is too weak to bargain in the public or private sector. Or support Democratic candidates, as unions often do. Ultimately, their goal would ensure that, except for regal chief executives, no one in this country makes too much money. It is typical that leading Republicans’ answer to wage stagnation is to take an ax to labor — or to hoot at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is now talking about wage inequality in her campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

Still, it is shocking that Michigan — the home state of the United Auto Workers, the union that established the high wages that lifted the boats of everyone in America — is now a right-to-work state like Mississippi. How did it happen?


United Auto Workers demonstration during the Chrysler strike in Detroit, Michigan, in 1937. Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library

Yes, there’s redistricting, which has turned over so many states to GOP control, many of them with not just Republican governors but also Republican-controlled state legislatures. And Republican mega-donors, particularly energy billionaires Charles and David Koch (big supporters of Walker in Wisconsin), whose foundations and sprawling networks of political organizations have poured in tens of millions of dollars to support and lobby for right-to-work laws. Alas, there are plenty of Americans who may be driving freight for minimum wage — or less if they are owner-operators — and are full of resentment for Teamsters making $33 an hour driving for United Parcel Service Inc.

One Teamster local officer put it this way: “You’d think instead of saying, ‘It’s outrageous that UPS drivers make $33 an hour,’ they’d be saying, ‘Hey, what can I do to make $33 an hour?’ ” But right-to-work laws have spread to 26 states — and the federal government — because most Americans aren’t in unions and don’t see what stake they have in them.

Yet in many ways, all Americans are freeloading off the few people left paying union dues. The Las Vegas hotel maids who kick in their dues are paying for labor to defend their wages and also to defend programs like Social Security that provide much greater benefits to you and me. But we’re not paying labor for this fight; the maids are. Indeed, there is virtually no one in Washington except labor to fight for these programs — even AARP has waffled. It gave ground on Social Security benefit cuts, for example, during a tough deficit battle in 2011.

So it’s bad for all Americans if organized labor is not just down to representing 6.6 percent of workers in the private sector — but not even getting dues from everyone in that 6.6 percent. Still, I don’t want to exaggerate the falloff. In Indiana, a union representative said to me: “In our larger shops, very few people stop paying. They understand what they’re getting.”

But where people are getting $17 an hour instead of $33, it’s different. “Of course they still want you to represent them,” the union rep said. They’re anything but anti-union. They might contribute if they could. But it’s tough to feed the kids even on $17 an hour.

Yet — there are bright spots for labor.

First, there’s the “Fight for 15” campaign. The struggle to raise the pay of low-paid, fast-food workers looked hopeless for a time. But it shows that you can still change the world if you can get tens of thousands of young people to go out on city streets and scream, as they did during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. That show of strength pushed the issue of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent into the public debate.


Demonstrators rally to raise the hourly minimum wage to $15 for fast-food workers at City Hall in Seattle, Washington, December 5, 2013. REUTERS/David Ryder

It’s a lesson for us all in this era of stark inequality: disruption works. It put the minimum wage at the top of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address this year. Across the country, cities like Seattle, Chicago and others are raising the minimum wage to $13, $14 or, yes, $15 an hour.

Second, leading Democrats now talk of collective bargaining, instead of more education, as the best answer to inequality. For years, politicians refused to offer any solution except that of sending more kids to college. Yet that never did make sense politically. After all, nearly 70 percent of the adult population — most of the labor electorate — do not have college degrees. So, in effect, Democrats and the educated elite are saying to white males with high-school degrees and to many others, “It’s too late for you.”

Those are bright spots, however, on a darkening horizon. Wage stagnation still keeps getting worse. Since 1979, the U.S. gross domestic product has risen 150 percent, worker productivity has increased 75 percent — and wages have gone up just 5 percent. Young people, the most certified and educated generation in American history, have experienced a drop in pay. How do we count the disinvestment in our young people as human capital? Big companies like Microsoft or Abbott Labs now hire many college graduates as temps. These kids are often the very students who politicians say America needs – those with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM in political speak.

College itself has become a parody of the U.S. workplace. University presidents make corporate CEO salaries, while more and more of  the teaching is done by adjunct faculty — Ph.D.’s who live on food stamps and have become part of the fight for a living wage. Welcome to the new workplace.

At last, some Democrats are waking up. Lawrence Summers, Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, has broken with many economists by touting collective bargaining. Obama even said the word “union” in his State of the Union. Clinton’s critics may scoff, but one thing she has long stood up for is women’s issues. And collective bargaining is the women’s issue of our time: The most militant unions in this country are composed of teachers and nurses, the majority of whom are women.

Unions are also stepping up.  The Steelworkers union is petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for a ruling or interpretation that would allow it to bargain “for members only,” eliminating union elections. If that happens, many employers would no longer be able to pick off pro-union supporters and fire them.

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Walter P. Reuter in front of a WPA mural during the 1940s. Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library

Yes, this kind of bargaining would mean no involuntary collection of dues from everyone. But as right-to-work laws spread across the nation, there seems no point in keeping the old model of exclusive representation.

There would be no point to elections or majority votes, either, in order to be an exclusive representative. In a way, Fight for 15 is just such a minority union. So why not get rid of the whole system? One German labor staffer told me, “If we had to get majority votes, we wouldn’t have any unions, either.”

The old labor leaders loved being an “exclusive representative.” The dues would roll in. Life was easier. But right-to-work laws are making it impossible to continue that model.

If right-to-work laws do lead to scrapping the old model — if they lead to a new era of labor advocacy and militancy — we may end up saving the middle class. And if that happens, let’s remember we have the Koch brothers to thank.

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