LaborTalk for February 22, 2011

Republicans Conduct Statewide Wars
To Shackle Unions and Worker Rights

By Harry Kelber

For the first time in a century, exulting Republicans, fresh from their victories in the 2010 midterm elections, see their chance of fragmenting organized labor and shredding its power and influence for decades to come. In their efforts to cripple the public employee unions, they are even getting unexpected help from several Democratic governors, including Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jerry Brown of California.

Unable to get a series of anti-labor measures through Congress, because of opposition of the still-Democratic control of the Senate and a potential veto by President Obama, G.O.P. strategists are focusing their attention on state capitols where many of their newly-elected governors and state legislative majorities are primed to carry out the Republican Party attacks on public employee unions.

A showdown battle is being fought in Wisconsin, where the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, is determined to deny unions the right to collective bargaining and is prepared to call in the National Guard to enforce his dictate.

Fortunately, his bullying tactics have outraged not only the unions, but thousands of citizens of Wisconsin. The rallies opposing Walker at the state’s capitol in Madison, have grown steadily each day, both in number and volume, including residents from all walks of life.

Wisconsin, like virtually all states, is in a budget crisis, but it is far from the worst. Unions in the state recognize there are problems and are willing to negotiate with the authorities, but Walker is determined to downsize the unions, no matter what it takes.

One of the inspiring effects of the Wisconsin conflict is how so many union members have become galvanized by the struggle, after long periods of apathy and indifference about union affairs.

It is still only a sign, but a hopeful one, that labor can emerge from its moribund condition and become the powerful voice for worker rights and social justice it once was.

State Unions Are Fighting Back in a War for Survival

Indiana is a good example of how workers and their unions are battling a Republican governor and state legislature that is intent on shackling labor’s political actions and depriving workers of benefits they’ve earned and had for years.

Indiana’s state AFL-CIO leaders have mobilized thousands of union members to fight proposed bills that would reduce jobless benefits, eliminate the prevailing wage, approve a phony “right-to-work” law, and cut off — the sources of union revenue — the dues payments of union members.

Moreover, many states are sponsoring legislation that would make it impossible for unions to engage in political action, because they would need the written consent of each union member —annually.

Nancy Guyott, president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO, has been tracking more than 300 pieces of legislation this session. She says: “The way I like to describe it [the session]. Are people going to have enough money to keep a decent roof over their heads, put food on their tables, help their children succeed in school and maybe still have enough money for a pizza and a movie on Friday night?”

Guyout adds: ”That’s why we’re here. We’re trying to make sure those concerns are reflected in public policy.”

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We don’t know how the showdown in Wisconsin will turn out, but one thing is obvious: legislative battles will take place in at least 15 states, mostly-controlled by Republican governors but some by Democrats, who will be using their budget problems to scapegoat public sector unions for their own political advantage.

If the AFL-CIO realizes that the showdown in Wisconsin is a first test of its fight for survival, it will quickly equip its affiliated state federations and central labor councils with funds and resources to mobilize union members to meet the formidable legislative challenges.

In the past, when labor has been under attack, union members, even passive ones, have been inspired to come to the rescue in the name of fairness and social justice. It would be an important step forward for labor if it should happen this time. — Harry Kelber

LaborTalk will be posted here on February 28, 2011 and on our two web sites and on