Given the roiling conflict in Wisconsin these past four years over the limits of public-sector unionism, it only was a matter of time before the scene would shift to the private sector. This Monday, Governor Scott Walker signed Right to Work legislation. The law, which took effect immediately, bars unions from forcing private-sector employers to fire workers who don’t pay dues. Two dozen other states have similar laws. Yet what really is getting under the skin of organized labor is the triumph of their nemesis, Gov. Walker. More than ever, he looks like a top-tier Republican presidential candidate in 2016. Union leaders are preparing accordingly. And they’re getting help from President Obama.
Labor officials are about the last people to be impressed by evidence that hiking the minimum wage drives up entry-level unemployment. These last several weeks they've been putting words into action in targeting fast food restaurants. Unions, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are retooling their campaign to establish a $15 an hour minimum wage for fast food employees, more than double the current $7.25 an hour basic federal minimum. Hundreds of protestors, though not necessarily union members, were arrested for blocking traffic on Labor Day. President Obama voiced his approval of the campaign that day in a speech. And the SEIU has called for a nationwide strike.
Public-sector unions largely owe their growth to their authority to force non-joining workers to put money in their coffers. The Supreme Court believes this authority needs some restraint. By a 5-4 margin, the Court ruled on Monday, June 30, in Harris v. Quinn that nonunion private-sector home health workers cannot be required to support a public employee union even if their wages come from state Medicaid funds. The class-action suit originated in 2010 when several home care workers sued the State of Illinois and two unions, challenging two executive orders issued, respectively, in 2003 and 2009 classifying thousands of these service providers as state employees. The orders, wrote Justice Samuel Alito, violated worker freedom of speech. At the same time, the ruling did not overturn the 1977 decision that justified the public-sector union shop and applied it to non-members.
Employees in the fast food industry, before anything else, know that they aren't going to make lots of money. Employers in this part of the restaurant world are in business to provide convenience at low prices rather than creativity or elegance. The wages they offer are a reflection of this. Yet the Service Employees International Union and an allied New York-based nonprofit coalition, Fast Food Forward, are bent on boosting these workers' wages in dramatic fashion. Last Thursday, August 29, the day after the 50th anniversary rally of the 1963 March on Washington, these activists led walkouts and demonstrations in dozens of cities in hopes of winning a $15 an hour minimum wage and union recognition for fast food employees.
"Comprehensive immigration reform," like virtually any initiative containing the magic word "comprehensive," looks good on the surface. But the details of the comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate in June by a 68-32 margin reveal much wrong underneath. Oblivious to this, top union leaders are gearing up for an all-out blitz this fall to secure passage of a similar bill in the Republican-majority House of Representatives. Led by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (in photo), they are obsessed with providing 11 million or more persons illegally in this country with amnesty and eventual citizenship, and with enabling millions of family members to come here to join them.
'Occupy Wall Street' and similar protests around the nation were only the beginning. The Service Employees International Union, as much as anyone, is making sure of it. The SEIU these past several months has been playing a crucial behind-the-scenes role in transforming these rallies into the raw material for a new generation of activists. Through varied front groups, the union is taking its fight against banks, energy companies and other corporations to a new level, making sure reluctant elected officials feel their wrath. These nonprofit organizations, typically operating under monikers such as "good jobs" and "a fair economy," may seem spontaneous and benign. Yet they are union stage-managed. And as their leaders become more sophisticated and networked, unions may wind up a good deal more effective in their drive to place the U.S. economy under public control.
Union leaders, frustrated over their inability to sway Congress, more than ever are relying upon the National Labor Relations Board to enact stealth legislation. The board, now with a Democratic majority, seems willing to oblige them. Case in point: an NLRB proposal announced last Tuesday, June 21, and published in the Federal Register the next day, to substantially reduce the duration of election campaigns for union representation. While the board touts the regulation as an overdue streamlining of an inefficient system, its covert motive, say critics, is to hamstring employer opposition.
When President Obama in March 2010 signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148), the nation's most expensive social legislation in decades, he announced, "The bill I'm signing will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for and marched for and hungered to see." Yet what the law seems to have set in motion is a rush to obtain exemptions from group coverage requirements.
Stephen Lerner is a hard person to admire. His specialty, after all, is economic sabotage. Yet his utility to the cause of public accountability is undeniable. Lerner, a longtime official with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) until his supposed ouster last November, was caught on March 18 and 19 on audiotape speaking before a closed-session audience at Pace University in Manhattan describing an SEIU plan to destabilize the U.S. economy. The campaign, which he heads, intends to take down the financial sector and trigger a massive redistribution of wealth and power.
Admirers may still call her "the queen of American labor," but Anna Burger (see photo) is now without a throne. Last week Burger stepped down as secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and as chairwoman of the SEIU-driven labor federation, Change to Win. Her resignations, which came on the heels of her announcement, weren't unexpected to those who know her. Her boss and longtime ally, Andrew Stern, only a few months earlier had resigned as Service Employees president. And Burger couldn't secure the needed support from the union's executive committee in her bid to become Stern's successor. The top spot went to Executive Vice President Mary Kay Henry. Though publicly she welcomed Ms. Henry's ascension, privately she was planning her exit. That's the nature of power struggles in any type of organization: Odd person out leaves.