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Laboring Under a New World

Unions are taking a big hit this year, and their influence with it.

When Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., announced his retirement Friday, some union backers cheered, believing the newly competitive Wisconsin Senate seat would give them an opportunity to prove that once and for all, Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker badly overreached with his campaign against them. Their dream scenario saw former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold return to champion them, signaling labor is back to its days of glory.

Think again. This has been a dismal year for labor, with Republican governors beating them head on, and even some liberal Democratic governors taking them on.

Labor was on the losing end of the first major referendum on Walker’s policies in Wisconsin, spending millions of dollars on behalf of a liberal challenger to Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, a conservative aligned with the governor.  


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They thought the public was squarely with them, and they got a split verdict instead—Prosser leads by about 7,000 votes, with final results from the recount pending.

They lost in Connecticut, where a Democratic governor who was elected on the efforts of labor, Dan Malloy, abruptly issued pink slips to about 10 percent of the unionized public workforce this month after negotiations hit a standstill—with threats of more to come.  His approach worked: Labor leaders conceded to $1.6 billion of givebacks of wage and pension benefits, with concessions in collective bargaining. This from the governor who has framed himself as “the anti-Christie”—someone who would run counter to the way New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie antagonized public unions.

They lost in Illinois, where the Legislature last week passed an education package making it easier to fire ineffective teachers and lengthening the school day—even with three of the state’s teacher unions pulling their support.  

The bill was championed by new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and will be signed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, despite his close relationship with labor.

This is the type of bill unions would have been screaming bloody murder about several years ago, but enough lawmakers thought the tide has shifted enough to make the change.

They lost in Massachusetts, where the Democratic-dominated House last month passed a bill in the dead of night to dramatically weaken unions’ collective bargaining powers.  The bill won the support of a clear majority of Democrats, despite labor’s vigorous opposition. After the vote, labor groups protested en masse at the state House, to little avail.

And they’re losing in the Republican presidential field, increasingly being defined by candidates who will be running on challenging labor’s influence.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, on the verge of deciding whether to run, offers the clearest example of this—passing a landmark education bill this year after being one of the first GOP governors to take on the collective bargaining system when he entered office.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made education reform a major part of his campaign. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are likely to talk about changing the way government is structured, given their business backgrounds.

It’s increasingly clear labor will have to reinvent itself to maintain long-term relevance. As former Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern has suggested, there are ways to modernize the movement—working with governments to fund job training programs and with school systems to develop a rigorous teacher evaluation system, to name two.  

But voters and some labor-friendly politicians are realizing the old system of defined benefits doesn’t mesh into the mode of the new economy. As Stern told the Washington Post in February: “Quality is our only job security in the long run.”

Unions should also be concerned about their significance from within, as well. The conventional wisdom coming out of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling was that both conservative-backing business groups and unions would benefit from fewer campaign finance regulations. That’s not shaping up to be the case.

My colleague Reid Wilson wrote last week about how major parties could soon be playing second fiddle to interest groups because of campaign finance rulings allowing them to pour unlimited funds into campaigns. Labor, as one of those powerful outside groups, was initially expected to benefit from the rulings since it’s always played a pivotal role supplementing party efforts to advertise and get a Democratic message out.

But just like the parties, labor is facing renewed competition from its donor base thanks to new organizations more connected to the national Democratic infrastructure. New laws passed in several battleground states make it harder for unions to automatically collect dues from public employees, making these new groups more attractive.

We’re now seeing a proliferation of powerful, outside Democratic groups emerging—House Majority PAC, Priorities USA, American Bridge—that will be serving a similar role as Big Labor without the baggage.   

Before the Citizens United ruling, unions were the main game in town to assist Democrats, given their ease in collecting dues and expertise in working around the campaign finance system. The GOP’s conservative allies, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, didn’t have as much desire or wherewithal to keep up, given the complicated maze of campaign finance regulations.

But just like in the world around them, increased competition is posing a serious threat to labor’s influence.

This article appears in the May 18, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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