What Wisconsin Has Wrought: Labor Unrest Spreads

February 23, 2011

On Tuesday afternoon, the 12 members of Ohio's Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee convened in a corner room on the second floor of the state senate building in Columbus. No vote or amendment was on the agenda, just a hearing on what is simply called Senate Bill 5. Outside the door, hundreds of protesters pressed into the halls and stairwells of the capitol as thousands more crowded the surrounding streets. They all wanted to testify.

SB5, introduced by Republican state Senator Shannon Jones and backed by Governor John Kasich, would abolish collective bargaining rights for some 42,000 state workers and scale back those of roughly 300,000 local government employees in Ohio, including teachers, firefighters and police. It was those workers and allies of the unions that represent them that swarmed the statehouse Tuesday, chanting "This is our house, let us in."

As demonstrations in Wisconsin over Governor Scott Walker's efforts to limit collective bargaining for many state employees entered a second week and national media swarmed Madison, similar protests swelled in state capitals across the nation. Though the various pieces of legislation and their respective impacts on labor unions private and public differ, the conflicts all pit Republican governors or their statehouse allies against a labor movement clamoring to be heard and eager to hinder their GOP opponents.

Democratic legislators in Indiana, mirroring their Wisconsin counterparts' desperation, fled the state and its police jurisdiction Tuesday in order to deny Republican lawmakers the quorum necessary to proceed on a "right to work" bill, legislation that would prevent employers and unions from signing contracts that require non-members to pay fees for representation. "There's a line in the sand for us," said Dan Parker, the chairman of Indiana's Democratic Party. "When something so much violates your principles... you use your last resort."

Although Republican Governor Mitch Daniels supports the "right to work" philosophy, he has urged his party not to pursue the legislation since late last year. "I thought there was a better time and place to have this very important and legitimate issue raised," Daniels, ever the pragmatist, told reporters Tuesday. His concerns are practical. While key legislative deadlines loom, his ambitious agenda has been grounded by the political weight of a single bill.

In Michigan, a few hundred picketers weathered the Lansing frost Tuesday to voice opposition to a small collection of proposals they see as a threat to unions. Newly elected Republican Governor Rick Snyder's budget calls for pensions to be taxed and he backs empowering emergency financial managers, brought in when a school or city is foundering, to cut union contracts. But when asked if there were any parallels to Wisconsin, Snyder insisted he remains committed to bargaining with labor rather than forcing his position. "It's not confrontational with the unions," he said. "It's about how we do collective bargaining to achieve a mutual outcome where we all benefit."

Florida is already a "right to work state" and Republican state Senator John Thrasher has introduced legislation to politically declaw unions there. As in Wisconsin, his bill would bar labor groups from using salary deductions for candidate donations or electioneering. But Rick Scott, who might just be the most brazen Republican governor of the 2011 class — he sent back $2.4 billion in federal transportation funds last week and proposed to lay off 6,700 state workers in his first budget proposal — appears wary of a larger standoff with unions. "My belief is as long as people know what they're doing, collective bargaining is fine," he told Tallahassee's WFLA Radio on Tuesday.

In Ohio, the power of the unions hasn't given Governor Kasich pause. He is willing to weather confrontation. And Democratic legislators lack the numbers in the statehouse to delay action with a walkout. Republicans have an 8-4 majority on that Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee, not to mention a 23-10 majority in the senate overall. SB5 is likely to face a full vote next week. "Procedurally there are very few options," says Ohio Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro, already looking past the vote to a possible referendum on the issue. "If this passes and ultimately becomes law, we do have the ability to bring it to the ballot."

In many ways, the intensity of these debates reflects a larger struggle for public opinion. Protest organizers in Ohio and Indiana are upset that, in their view, Republicans didn't run on a platform of reining in labor, and that their legislation hasn't yet received ample sunlight. Democrats ultimately lack the votes in their statehouses — and allies in the governor's mansions — to defeat many of these bills. Labor's hope is that by attracting attention and stymying Republican agendas, they can claim the mantle of popular support.

A recent Gallup poll that asked if Americans would "favor or oppose a law... taking away some collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers union," found that 61% said they would oppose it. But now is a difficult time for labor. American manufacturing is in decline, the recession has wreaked terrific damage on state budgets, which are often balanced only by deferring payments on massive pension liabilities, and it's the first time in decades politicians of either party in the midwest and northeast are challenging union benefits and bargaining powers.

In Indiana, Parker calls this "assaulting middle class Hoosier workers." Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who called for public employees to pony up a greater share of their health care premiums in his second budget address Tuesday in Trenton, frames it like this: "The promises of the past are too expensive, and the prospects of the future are too important to stay on the old, failed course."

Madison may be the battlefront for that debate, but the skirmishes are spreading. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is scheduled to lead a rally Friday in Trenton. Jesse Jackson is on his way to Columbus. "We're seeing thousands of people come here," says Ohio's Senator Cafaro. "It's no different than other places, like Wisconsin."