Busting the Union Busters

This is not a very happy Labor Day for labor, considering the continued heavy attacks on public-employee unions, which have become the vanguard of organized labor. More than one-third of public employees are now in unions, while only about 7 percent of private-sector-workers are unionized.

Probably nothing could be more damaging to the labor movement in general than the attempts by anti-union forces to weaken unions at all levels of government by trying to limit – if not withdraw – their collective bargaining rights and right to strike, in addition to unilaterally cutting the pay and pensions, health care, and other benefits their unions have won in bargaining.

Although that's all been done in the name of budget balancing, it's more accurately described as union busting, spurred on by the steady increase in public-employee union members, even as the number of private-sector unionists has been declining.

It hasn't helped unions, either, that President Obama has turned out to be far less friendly to labor than he'd promised while securing lots of union money and lots of union supporters to help him win the presidency. Ironically, the key role unions played in Obama's election has led to moves by anti-union forces to try to also weaken unions' political rights.

The best example of the heavy pressures public employees and their unions are feeling is in Wisconsin, where the movement to strip public employees of their union rights began, under notoriously anti-labor Gov. Scott Walker.

Republican Walker is not only seeking to deny unionization to most state, county and municipal employees. He's also been pushing measures that would increase the employees' contributions to pension and health care funds by up to 50 percent, require their contracts to be renegotiated yearly and no longer allow unions to deduct dues from employee paychecks. It's hard to imagine a union surviving under such restraints. Certainly Governor Walker and his political friends don't imagine it.

Wisconsin is but one of at least 18 states, including several once considered union friendly, where public employees are under heavy attack. On the federal level, supposedly labor-friendly Obama has imposed a federal pay freeze.

Ohio's Republican Gov. John Kasich is trying to outdo Walker. He's proposing, among other anti-union measures, to eliminate the bargaining rights of more than 35,000 of Ohio's public employees, to outlaw teacher strikes, prevent child care and home care workers from unionizing and repeal a rule that requires paying union wages to nonunion workers on public construction projects.

Governor Walker, however, remains the poster boy for anti-labor stalwarts. His most outrageous act has been to back a new state law that requires about two-thirds of Wisconsin's school districts to use employee handbooks to replace collective bargaining agreements that for decades outlined the teachers' pay and duties.

Substituting the handbooks for negotiated contracts gives school administrators the authority to dictate broad changes in the teachers' working conditions without so much as consulting the teachers. In some school districts, even the administrators were not consulted before the handbooks with their stringent new conditions were issued.

Teachers are probably our most important public employees. Yet, despite their great importance – or maybe because of it – Governor Walker is eagerly supporting not only a withdrawal of teachers' collective bargaining rights, but also an end to teacher tenure, which protects them from unwarranted attacks by union foes such as Walker.

Walker also wants a substantial increase in the already high contributions to their health insurance by teachers and teacher retirees and changes that curtail the teachers' basic rights and security by allowing them to be hired on a year-to-year basis. The new rules also mandate that, in times of financial constraint, seniority can no longer be a basis for deciding which teachers to layoff.

Some Wisconsin school districts are even trying to reduce the number of sick days allowed teachers, however unwise it may seem to have teachers with possible communicative illnesses remain in the classroom because they can't afford to take days off.

Other districts are doing away with at least some paid holidays or changing extra days used for professional development into workdays and cutting paid lesson preparation periods in half. The Wisconsin Journal Sentinel's Erin Richards quotes one of Wisconsin's major teacher union leaders as noting that teachers across the state have been most concerned with losing prep time, which can have a direct effect on the quality of lessons and student performance.

Governor Walker and other leading Republicans don't seem to be much concerned about that. What's more important to them is cutting Wisconsin's education budget; the influence of teachers on education policy; and, of course, all but eliminating the union rights of teachers and all other public employees.

But Walker may very well have gone too far. The negative reaction has been strong and growing in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It's widely realized that if the public-employee union busters are successful, private-sector unions throughout the country will feel even stronger opposition. And it's clear that if anti-union forces can weaken the public-employee unions that are the strongest segments of today's labor movement, it's more than likely that private-sector unions will be the next target.

The good news is that, recently, Wisconsin voters easily turned back a GOP attempt to recall two strong pro-worker state senators who had helped lead the fight against Walker's anti-worker legislation. The fight began in the spring when Republicans targeted eight Democratic senators for recall – and lost. There have been nine recall elections since then and labor has won five of them.

Labor and the Democrats had hoped to wrest control of the State Senate from the GOP. But though failing to do so, they did narrow the Republicans Senate majority to a razor-thin 17-16.

Democrats and union leaders are rightly celebrating the pro-labor election victories as a possible opening shot against anti-labor extremism nationwide, which could, in turn, lead to an attempt to recall Governor Walker or at least force him to back off.

Actually, Walker has done his labor enemies a great favor by provoking public outrage that has brought important new strength and solidarity to the cause of working people and their unions everywhere.

So, it may be a happy Labor Day after all, thanks to a labor opponent.