By Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON–The Republican dominated Congress and Republican governors have resorted to tough tactics to squeeze unions concessions, which in the short term, is helping push disgruntled Republican union households to the Democrats.
As was the case in the 1980s, unions in such industries as automobiles, steel, rubber, mining and trucking took a pounding and have lost thousands of workers. Their bargaining strength has been blunted, master contracts broken, picket lines crossed. Today, the terrain across the country is no different — union workers are often confronted with a no-win ultimatum: accept a pay cut or lose your jobs.
Unemployment in the automobile, textile, steel, hi-tech, and manufacturing industries is high because of intense competition, slow growth, and most companies have moved their factories to cheap labor countries overseas. Even though the economy is now generally expanding at a moderate pace, unions have not regained their former bargaining muscle. And may never recover from the onslaught they are experiencing from state houses and city halls across the country.
There are union busting bills presently on the books or are being debated in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Many political observers such as E.D. Kain of the American Times, believes that the Republican machine is on a path to breaking the Democratic Party and demoralizing and de-funding its base by attacking and demonizing unions. “If this is not an all-out assault on Democrats, then it is most certainly an all-out assault on the Democratic constituency: the poor, unions, minorities, immigrants. The Republican vision for the future of America is simple: tax cuts for the rich, and service cuts for the poor; excellent private schools for the rich, and dubious for-profit private schools for everybody else. Privatize public services by handing them over to wealthy donors, and push that inequality gap even wider.”
Meanwhile Republicans in Arizona are trying to cut hundreds of thousands of people from the Medicaid rolls, while Republicans in Florida are enacting sweeping plans to privatize the state’s schools and cut public services.
“Republican governors claims that its tactics are necessary for survival, but workers call it union busting,” says AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka. “This is the worst antiunion, antilabor period in my lifetime. We are the only country in the free world where the labor movement is fighting for its life.”
The so-called deficit cutting bill Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker signed into law in March is the latest ripple in a cascade of union defeats. Workers in the state are expected to see wages and benefits cuts amounting to 14% -25%. But the pay concessions themselves were far less significant than the manner in which they were achieved. Although the union put on a defiant show of solidarity and won widespread popular support, it was unable to influence the governor and the Republican controlled legislature.
Americans reject Republican efforts to curb bargaining rights of unions whose power they say is dwarfed by corporations, a March 2011 Bloomberg National Poll finds.
As battles rage between state workers and Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, 63 percent don’t think states should be able to break their promises to retirees, and respondents split over whether governors aim to balance their budgets or weaken unions that back Democratic foes, according to the poll conducted March 4-7.
The poll shows that political challenges to government workers are failing to draw broad support from a public more concerned about unemployment than government deficits. Respondents are divided over whether public employees should sacrifice to help states ease their fiscal crises: About half say governors are unfairly targeting unions and 46 percent say public employees should be willing to accept benefit cuts. The fracture largely reflects party lines.
“The Republican Party sees an opportunity to attack and possibly destroy the base of their opponents’ political power,” says poll respondent Dale Palmer, 59, a Democrat and retired teacher from Zephyrhills, Florida.
Palmer says budget deficits are a result of the economy and years of tax cuts, not the actions of public employees. “They’re putting it now on the backs of their enemies even when these particular unions are willing to bargain,” he says.
With states facing budget deficits of $175 billion over the next two years, tax revenue yet to rebound from the recession, and pensions strained by investment losses, even government workers in Democratic-led states including New York and California are facing job losses, pay cuts or challenges to retirement benefits.
States have cut 82,000 jobs, or 1.6 percent of their jobs, since their payrolls peaked in August 2008, a month before the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. accelerated the financial crisis, according to Labor Department data.
Rising tensions between Republican politicians and state workers sparked protests in the Midwest. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich, first elected in the November races that also put their party in charge of a majority of states and the U.S. House, are seeking to roll back the collective bargaining rights of government workers. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also has challenged worker benefits he says threaten to hobble his state.
Unions serving as checks and balances on government
Randy Turner, a 32-year old construction worker from Springfield, Missouri, who participated in the poll, says he sees unions as a corrective force against a government that exerts enough power.
“Trying to make us not have a right for unions for anything is wrong,” says Turner, an independent voter who isn’t a union member. “They help our economy; they help the job market — all kinds of things our government doesn’t help.”
The skirmishes have intensified support for unions among their members and Democrats, a potential challenge to Republicans in the 2012 elections, says Scott Keeter, a pollster with Pew Research Center in Washington.
“That fact might not change the outcome of the current battles, but could have implications for voter turnout among these groups next year,” he says.
While the Bloomberg poll found Democrats and Republicans largely in agreement on the question of bargaining rights and pension promises, other questions about public employees reflect a partisan split over the motivations of politicians and the sacrifices government employees should be called upon to make.
Seventy percent of Democrats say Republican governors are unfairly targeting public employee unions, while a majority of Republicans and independents say public employees should be willing to make sacrifices because of the state budget shortfalls.
When asked whether governors are trying to reduce their budget deficits or the power of unions, the same split prevails: Sixty-two percent of Democrats see a gambit to weaken unions, while 71 percent of Republicans say deficits are the target. Independents are divided 51 percent to 41 percent, with the majority saying budgets are the cause.
Overall, poll respondents with a favorable view of unions outnumber those with an unfavorable view 49-to-40 percent. Even with the attention received by both Wisconsin Governor Walker and New Jersey’s Christie, at least half weren’t sure how they viewed either politician.
A majority says unions are appropriate for firefighters, nurses, teachers, prison guards and police officers. Respondents were divided only over whether custodians and office workers also should be unionized.
Poll respondent Margaret Coakley, 72, a retired psychiatric social worker from New York who lives in New Harbor, Maine, says politicians are wrong if they blame public employees for the financial ills of their state. “It’s outrageous they’re pointing to public employees now,” she says. “That’s not where the problems are.”
The poll of 1,001 adults was conducted by Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Danny R. Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.