News stories

Unions under attack

Labor pains

Hundreds of Wisconsin’s public employees and supporters pack the Capitol in MadiIsaac SteinerHundreds of Wisconsin’s public employees and supporters pack the Capitol in Madison.

Public-sector workers across the nation are being made scapegoats for their states’ economic problems by politicians who are exploiting the opportunity to not only exact painful concessions but to try to do away with collective-bargaining rights altogether. Below is the latest news, at press time, from five states at the center of those fights.


Governor trying to remove workers’ rights

Wisconsin has become the epicenter of a national struggle pitting opportunistic politicians seeking to curtail workers’ rights against hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens who are determined to end the assault on middle-class standards of living.

It began when newly elected, Tea Party-backed Gov. Scott Walker introduced a bill that would eliminate collective-bargaining rights for most public-sector workers on all matters except pay, where any increases would be capped. The bill further cuts their health care and pension benefits by requiring substantial increases in employee contributions.

Walker’s bill also contains provisions that would have no impact on the state’s bottom line. Under his proposal, the state would stop collecting union dues from employee paychecks. Walker would also give members of public-sector unions the right not to pay dues. And he would require each public-employee union to hold annual decertification elections to determine whether a majority of workers wanted to remain unionized.

Although Walker has insisted the bill is about balancing the budget, that argument has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. For starters, the move came after the governor created the very deficit he claimed to be addressing with two corporate tax cuts. And while the unions have agreed to the financial concessions, Walker has refused to accept them without the non-budgetary provisions taking away their rights. Moreover, Wisconsin stands to lose $46 million in federal transportation subsidies if it abolishes collective bargaining for its workers.

The response from Wisconsin’s public employees, private- and public-sector unions, students, religious leaders and others has been electrifying. By the thousands, then tens of thousands they filled the streets around the Capitol in Madison. Hundreds occupied the capitol building itself for two weeks.

State Senate Democrats fled the state to deprive the senate of the quorum it needs to pass the bill. Meanwhile, Assembly Republicans engineered a late-night cutoff of debate and vote on the bill on Feb. 25. On Feb. 26 the crowds outside swelled to 100,000 or more. Inside the threat to arrest anyone who refused to leave the building evaporated in the face of solidarity between the police, who were exempted from the bill but have publicly supported the protests, and the protesters, who have treated the cops with respect and courtesy.

On Feb. 28, the Republicans had the building locked, so no additional protesters could get in. Then they had the windows welded so supporters outside could not pass food along to those inside. Union leaders went to court to have the building re-opened to the public. Gov. Walker continues to defy the court order, and some Assembly Democrats have moved their office desks out on the lawn in front of the Capitol and are meeting with constituents there. Republicans announced that the missing Senate Democrats would be fined $100 a day until they returned.

But Senate Democrats have held fast. There have been reports that a Senate Republican has withdrawn his support for the bill. Thousands continue to protest outside. Public opinion has turned against Walker, and opponents of Walker’s bill have filed recall papers against eight Republicans. And together, the people of Wisconsin have inspired the nation.

- Cara Metz

March 11 update on Wisconsin:

Stoking Republican efforts to check union power across the country, Wisconsin's state Assembly on March 10 sent Gov. Scott Walker a bill that would limit collective-bargaining rights of government workers. The vote, during another emotional day at the Capitol, is expected to intensify bitter fights in capitols from Idaho to Indiana, emboldening other budget-cutting Republican governors to press ahead with anti-union legislation. But it also is likely to galvanize unions and their Democratic allies. "From a policy perspective, this is terrible," said Mike Tate, leader of the state Democratic Party. "But from a political perspective, he could not have handed us a bigger gift," Tate said of the governor.

New Jersey

Christie crusades against teachers

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie is determined to fix the state’s deep budget problems at the expense of public employees. In a feat of demagoguery, Christie has portrayed himself as the champion of the middle-class taxpayer fighting greedy unions. His favorite punching bag has been the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Since his election in late 2009, Christie has crusaded against the teachers union on two fronts: he’s gone after their pay, health benefits and pensions, saying that the cash-strapped state can no longer afford them and they don’t deserve them, and he has pushed for merit pay, charter schools and the end of teacher tenure as the centerpieces of his self-declared “year of education reform.”

This year, even as he proposes tax cuts for businesses of about $200 million, Christie is demanding that teachers and other public employees pay about a third of their health care plan premiums (a savings to the state of $323 million). In his budget address, Christie held a property-tax credit for senior citizens hostage to the health-care concessions.

With the state’s pension system facing an estimated deficit of $54 billion, Christie is also seeking to cut state workers’ retirement benefits by 11 percent, which the teachers union says will penalize educators for the irresponsibility of politicians. At no time in the last 17 years has New Jersey fully met its annual obligation to the pension fund, and in many of those years, the state paid nothing at all. Christie paid nothing into the state pension system last year and he says he will make the legally required $506 million contribution this year only if the Legislature approves his proposals.

Last year, the governor blamed the teachers union for widespread layoffs after it refused to accept a one-year freeze and contribute at least 1.5 percent of salary toward their health benefits. Christie persuaded many voters to reject school budgets in districts where teachers did not agree to the givebacks. 

Christie has created a revenue vise that is starving New Jersey’s townships and cities: a strict 2 percent annual cap on local property taxes, coupled with a reduction in state aid. The goal: New Jersey’s townships and cities will have no choice but to demand deep concessions in municipal labor contracts.

Moving on Christie’s other front of battle, a task force convened by the governor recommended on March 3 that student test scores should be the most important factor in teacher evaluations. This rating, Christie believes, should determine what teachers were paid, who is first in line in layoffs, and which teachers receive and retain tenure.

- Michael Hirsch

Mapping the assault

Labor unions are under attack in states all across the country.  Since the November elections, 12 states have introduced anti-union “right to work” laws. That’s in addition to the 22 states, mostly in the South and West, which already had “right to work” laws on the books. Two of these states, Virginia and Iowa, are taking matters even further. In Virginia, anti-union politicians have proposed incorporating the “right to work” into the state constitution, and in Iowa conservatives have introduced measures that would put the phrase “Iowa Is a Right to Work State” on all state vehicles, Department of Transportation signs and official tourism literature. "Right to work" laws prohibit contracts that require that all the workers who benefit from union representation pay for union representation.

Legislation to strip public-sector workers of the right to bargain collectively is under consideration in 18 states. Politicians in these states claim their states’ budget crises make this change necessary — but, really, it’s just pure and simple union-busting.

Check out the map below to see where and how unions are under assault.

Adapted from a Labor Notes mapAdapted from a Labor Notes map


Governor takes aim at unions

In one of his first moves as governor in 2005, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels eliminated collective-bargaining rights for all state employees. 

The results: no raises in years and higher health insurance costs for public employees the weakening of seniority rights (which workers say has translated into more senior, higher-paid workers being fired), and the ability of government to outsource operations to private companies — which has meant hundreds of state workers have lost their jobs.

Not content to leave it at that, the Republican governor — who has aspirations to run for president — is now seeking to restrict collective bargaining for teachers. Taking a page from the strategy book of their counterparts in Wisconsin, Democratic lawmakers, who are in the minority, fled the state on Feb. 22 to prevent a vote. The stalemate continued into its second week as New York Teacher went to press in early March.

Labor pains - 2AFT Leadernet/Tom Strattman

“Anyone who takes a legitimate look at what’s part of the package can’t help but come to the conclusion that this is a coordinated attack on public schools, public school teachers and especially on (teacher unions),” said high school teacher Art Adye in the Evansville Courier & Press.

The Daniels administration is also calling for a private school voucher system (which would defund public education) and an expansion of charter schools.

The governor is also pushing a bill to base teacher evaluations on student test scores, implement a system of performance-based pay and make it easier to dismiss teachers who are rated ineffective or in need of improvement. 

Indiana legislators, emboldened by the current anti-union climate, have proposed “right to work” legislation for public- and private-sector unions. 

That would mean the end of rules requiring workers to pay union dues or agency fees. It would effectively defund unions, weakening their ability to operate and their power to mobilize politically to defend workers’ rights.

Thousands of workers and union members converged on Indiana’s statehouse at the end of February to protest these harsh new attacks on teachers and other working people.

- Cara Metz

Labor pains - 4AFT Leadernet


Public on warpath against anti-worker bill

Public opinion in Ohio is running high against the state’s anti-union bill. Republican leaders had to remove two dissenting party members from key committees just to get the bill to the State Senate floor and 20,000 people jammed the streets of Columbus on March 1 in opposition. Nevertheless, on March 2, the Senate passed the bill by a one-vote margin.

Like the bill in Wisconsin, the Ohio legislation is a sweeping attack on public-sector union rights. While disguised as a fiscal measure, it, too, has no significant budgetary impact. The bill effectively abolishes collective bargaining for state workers, severely limiting the issues covered by bargaining and imposing an impasse resolution procedure that is patently absurd: after fact-finding, local elected officials, i.e., management, would have the right to accept or reject the findings and impose their own last best offer. In other words, there is no incentive for management to ever bargain in good faith. For police and fire unions, this system would replace the current practice of binding arbitration.

The Ohio bill also outlaws strikes by all public employees and replaces salary schedules with so-called “merit” pay.

It faces less opposition in the House, where Republicans hold a larger majority, and House leaders are planning to bring it to a vote by March 15. Gov. John Kasich, who shares Gov. Walker’s anti-union zeal, will sign the bill.

But the story in Ohio isn’t as bleak as this picture suggests. Under Ohio law, a bill can be stopped from implementation by a repeal referendum process and union leaders are already gearing up to get the hundreds of thousands of signatures they will need in the days after the governor signs the bill.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people have come out to town hall meetings and demonstrations all winter, and one poll conducted by an ABC News station shows over 90 percent of people in favor of killing the bill. Unions believe that they can win this battle at the ballot box.

- Michael Hirsch



Public employees bearing brunt of sacrifice

Labor unions in Michigan are organizing demonstrations and doing mass lobbying to fight a number of anti-worker proposals, including a bill that would give state-appointed emergency financial managers for cash-strapped cities and schools the power to void labor contracts.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a newcomer to politics who ran on his business expertise as a former computer executive, offers a less-confrontational model of governing than his counterparts in Wisconsin or New Jersey. He is not demanding the end of collective bargaining for state workers, but his push to address the state’s longstanding financial problems by asking public-sector workers to do most of the sacrificing is not so different.

More than 1,000 Michigan union members and their supporters converge on the statAFT Leadernet/Jeffrey SaugerMore than 1,000 Michigan union members and their supporters converge on the state Capitol in Lansing on Feb. 22.

Under his new budget released in February, Snyder proposes cutting business taxes by $1.8 billion. To pay for it, he wants to abolish the state’s earned income tax credit, which helps the working poor, and tax pensions. His budget also calls for about $180 million in concessions from public employees. He has proposed huge cuts to state school aid — enough to bankrupt many school districts.

“Gov. Snyder’s idea of shared sacrifice seems to mean that working families will do most of the sacrificing while companies continue to reap the rewards,” said Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic Senate leader.

On March 2, the governor announced that the state would stop deducting union dues from the state’s 16,500 family child care providers, weakening the two unions that represent them.

Republicans, who control both houses of the state Legislature, are also intent on pushing through a number of anti-union bills: one that would eliminate the state’s prevailing wage law that covers contractors on public construction projects; another that would cut the pay of public employees by 5 percent; and a third that would allow “right to work” zones where employers would be barred from requiring workers to be union members as a condition of employment.

- Cara Metz

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