Democrats Smart From Attempts To Weaken Unions

The move by Republican governors to get rid of public sector unions' collective bargaining rights isn't just a response to runaway pension obligations on the part of state governments. It's also a way to defund one of the Democratic parties most important interest groups.

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Here in the United States, a political battle is raging in the Midwest, where several Republican governors are attempting to curb the power of public sector unions. The outcome could have a big effect on the balance of power between the two political parties.

Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: Newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker is leading the charge against the public sector unions in Wisconsin. But the effort actually began in Indiana six years ago, under Republican Governor Mitch Daniels.

Governor MITCH DANIELS (Republican, Indiana): We have a situation in which public sector unions get jillions of dollars in dues, which they hand back to the politicians, who then sweeten the pot for them in an unending circle, and that's a bad idea.

LIASSON: As Daniels told Fox News, he signed an executive order in 2005 that put an end to collective bargaining for state workers and made union dues voluntary. The results were dramatic. According the Dave Warrick, the executive director of the public employees union in Indiana, AFSCME lost the vast majority of its members.

Mr. DAVE WARRICK (Executive Director, AFSCME, Indiana): The way I liked to portray that is if you're buying a car and you're making payments on the car, and then somebody comes along and yanks the motor out of the car and says okay, you can still pay on that car if you want to, but you don't have to. Yeah, there were a lot of people who did pull out as members, because he took away any ability for the unions to do anything.

LIASSON: And Warrick is bracing for more changes. Another proposed law would make it harder for unions to collect those voluntary dues. Warrick cites the example of one AFSCME unit of school bus drivers and custodians who currently have their voluntary dues taken out of their paychecks. But Indiana House bill 1585 would change that.

Mr. WARRICK: It would make it illegal for the Indianapolis Public Schools to allow any employee to voluntary have those dues be deducted from their checks. Now, I have no idea how they can even think that that has anything to do with saving money, helping the state budget, or creating jobs.

LIASSON: One thing it does have to do with is changing the balance of power in state and national politics. Steve Rosenthal the former political director of the AFL-CIO.

Mr. STEVEN ROSENTHAL (Former Political Director, AFL-CIO): You can dress it up any way you want, but it really is a bold attempt to try to eliminate unions, which have consistently mounted very aggressive efforts to elect politicians, who tend to largely be Democrats.

LIASSON: Public sector unions are among the Democrats' biggest donors, and they provide the biggest single pool of campaign volunteers. So it's no surprise the Republican National Committee has tried to frame the debate as taxpayers versus the public unions. The RNC is airing this ad on Wisconsin television.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man: State budgets have run dry and the federal debt is skyrocketing, but Obama and the Union bosses are standing in the way of economic reform, intimidating taxpayers, leading...

LIASSON: A group of conservative think tanks has been working the public union issue for a long time, drafting legislation and preparing the intellectual arguments against collective bargaining. The underlying fiscal problem is urgent: $3 trillion of unfunded state government pension liabilities. But for Ralph Benko of the conservative American Principles Project, the solution isn't just to cut wages and benefits. The unions have already agreed to that.

Mr. RALPH BENKO (American Principles Project): We need to get down to the root of the problem: collective bargaining. You're talking about government money being paid out as salaries, which then gets picked up by the union, which then gets put into the political process directly. And then that's taxpayer money being used to lobby officials for special interests. And to me, that's a closed loop.

LIASSON: Benko insists this is not a partisan argument, but its application has a partisan result.

Mr. ROBERT REICH (Former Labor Secretary): The Republican strategy clearly is to disempower the Democrats.

LIASSON: That's former labor secretary Robert Reich.

Mr. REICH: What we will see is not only gradual erosion of wages and benefits over time, but we will also see the decline of public employees as a political force, particularly a political force in the Democratic Party and for the Democratic Party.

LIASSON: And that's particularly threatening to Democrats since the Supreme Court decision that allows unions and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns. In the last election, the only Democratic-affiliated groups that came close to the amount of money Republican groups spent were the public sector unions. As Steven Rosenthal points out, even if the unions manage to preserve their right to bargain, they will have had to use up a lot of resources to do it.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: There will be millions of dollars spent in all these states, where both public workers and others are under attack. Every dollar that's spent defending themselves is a dollar that the unions can't spend to try to improve the living standards of workers and to put into political campaigns.

LIASSON: And that's exactly what the unions are being forced to do today. Although the fight has re-energized the union grass roots and polls show strong support for collective bargaining rights, it looks like round one of this fight is going to the new Republican governors in the all-important electoral battleground of the Midwest.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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