As in 2014, union leaders last year directed much of their energies toward maximizing political and legal advantage. And they scored tangible victories. President Barack Obama, now in his last year in office, is without question the best White House friend of organized labor in decades. Among other things, unions won major cases before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with its built-in 3-2 Democratic Party majority. And the Teamsters achieved its long-sought goal of release from federal control established following a 1989 civil racketeering settlement. Yet organized labor also experienced its share of setbacks, especially in the courts. And they received lots of unwanted exposure for embezzlement and fraud. As far as rank and file members are concerned, the most pressing problem is the growing possibility that their pension plans will be depleted.
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.
For three and a half years, public-sector unions in Wisconsin, to little or no avail, have sought to topple a state law to restrict their collective bargaining abilities. Their options now are nearly exhausted. Last Thursday, July 31, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a 2011 law passed by the Republican-majority legislature at the urging of GOP Governor Scott Walker. By a 5-2 margin, the court concluded that while public employees may organize unions, their employers are not obligated to negotiate with them. The ruling is a clear victory for Gov. Walker, who survived a voter recall in June 2012 over this issue. It's also a blow for fiscal responsibility at a time when many state and local governments are facing large deficits in employee benefit programs.
If nothing else, Wisconsin's public-sector unions are as unrelenting in the courts as they are in the streets. But they're still no closer to their goal of overturning a 2011 law limiting their collective bargaining abilities. On April 18, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, unanimously ruled that the law, Act 10, did not violate free speech, free association or equal protection rights of unions representing employees of the City of Madison and the rest of Dane County. The ruling, which upheld a district court decision in September, concluded the State of Wisconsin is not required to maintain policies that support private associations such as unions. This case is separate from one in January 2013 in which the Seventh Circuit Court, by 2-1, upheld the entirety of the law.
The ruling might not have eased tension in a state that by now is all too used to it. But it went a long way in clarifying the situation. Last Friday, on January 18, a federal appeals court in Chicago, by a 2-1 margin, upheld the entirety of a Wisconsin law passed in 2011 that repealed most collective bargaining for state and local government employees. In overturning a lower court decision of last March, the three-judge panel concluded the legislation, Act 10, did not violate public-sector unions' constitutional right to free speech or equal protection. The ruling thus removes a major obstacle to Republican Governor Scott Walker's program to improve his state's fiscal condition.
The increasing overlap of labor and political activism is an insidious form of public corruption in this country. It enables union officials to deemphasize their role of representing workers at the bargaining table in favor of advocating policies to socialize the economy, building incestuous relationships with politicians, and fattening their bank accounts. This tendency was heavily felt in 2012, a presidential election year. Union leaders recognized the need to re-elect their ally and benefactor, President Barack Obama, over someone who was a wealthy Republican with a strong business background; i.e., someone they truly could despise. They got what they wanted. In the process, they further built a political infrastructure. Yet union leaders also experienced reversals of fortune at the state level - most of all, in Michigan - where they had been used to getting their way.
"The unbridled growth of crony unionism and government corruption will destroy the United States as we know it." This statement may strike many as sheer hyperbole. But its author, Mallory Factor, a political scientist at The Citadel, knows whereof he writes. His new book, "Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind" (New York: Center Street), makes a credible case, and a well-sourced one, that our country may be in the early stages of a ruinous dystopia, courtesy of public-sector unions. In pursuing their interests, argues the author, these labor organizations hold taxpaying citizens hostage to unsustainable wage/salary, pension, health care and other contractual commitments. Municipal bankruptcy filings this year by San Bernardino and Stockton, Calif. may be a mere taste of things to come.
In Wisconsin, the conflict between public-sector unions and the administration of Republican Governor Scott Walker continues, ever assuming a new form - and this time a new victor. The latest round belongs to the unions. Last Friday, September 14, Wisconsin Circuit Judge Juan Colas (Dane County) struck down limits enacted in March 2011 on state and local employee collective bargaining power, arguing the law was unconstitutional on federal and state grounds. The decision enables city, county and school district employees to revert to their earlier situation; state employees, for the most part, are unaffected.
To his sworn enemies, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker's victory last Tuesday over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett by 53 to 46 percent has been hard to spin and to accept. The biggest loser, aside from Barrett himself, is the state's public-sector labor unions. There's not much getting around it. It was public-sector unions who led the effort to recall Walker following passage by the legislature over a year ago of a fiscal reform package that included several tough limitations on collective bargaining power. Unions and allied groups by this January gathered nearly a million signatures to put a recall on the ballot.
Unions for many years have been a highly reliable segment of the Democratic Party Left. Yet this perhaps no more was this true than in 2011 - and with good reason. The year began with the Republicans holding a nearly 50-seat edge in the House of Representatives following the GOP's smashing wins in the November 2010 midterm elections. Avoiding legislative process became a top priority for organized labor.