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Nation's unions lost big in the Wisconsin showdown

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Associated Press
June 7, 2012
— Gov. Scott Walker’s definitive victory in Wisconsin’s recall election is already reverberating in other state capitals. It exposed the shrunken political muscle of the unions that tried to oust him, underscoring their vulnerability to attacks from the right and inability to retaliate.

Republicans in some nearby states where anti-union measures failed this year say they now plan to use Walker’s victory to mount renewed efforts in 2013.


Instead of ejecting the Republican who slashed state and local government workers’ job benefits and bargaining rights, the union-instigated recall has made Walker a heroic model for conservatives five months before the November election.


“I think it’s bad news for the labor movement,” said John Russo, a labor studies professor at Youngstown State University. “It gives the impression they are not as strong as they once were, which they are not.”


Labor leaders maintain that the fight was worth it, that the massive protests against Walker and bitter divisions it created will make other governors and legislators think twice before making similar forays against unions.


But Walker’s victory is encouraging Republicans in other states to push ahead with their own efforts to curtail unions’ power and chop away at the benefits gained for their members over the years.


GOP lawmakers in states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and New Hampshire are likely to push harder for right-to-work legislation or other measures that restrict automatic union dues collection.


No labor fight had so captivated Americans since President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers for illegally striking in 1981, a move that encouraged businesses to take tougher stands against unions and helped precipitate a steep decline in union membership.


“I consider it bigger than the air traffic controllers,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “I think it’s going to embolden employers in bargaining and discourage workers from joining unions. I think it’s hitting unions on all fronts.”


Republicans in some states near Wisconsin are paying attention.


“Not only is there the momentum in favor of the kinds of reforms that Governor Walker advocated for and got passed, but there becomes a competitive issue,” said Minnesota state Sen. Dave Thompson, a Republican who’s sponsoring an amendment to his state’s constitution to make Minnesota a right-to-work state.


“It becomes harder for places like Minnesota to compete economically with states that make positive reforms that benefit the business climate and make life easier on taxpayers,” Thompson said.


In Missouri, state Sen. Dan Brown is hoping the Wisconsin recall results will encourage the Legislature’s large, yet reluctant GOP majorities to move forward next year with bills limiting some union powers. Brown wants to pare back mandatory wages on public works projects and halt the perpetual deduction of union dues from public employee paychecks by requiring annual written authorization.


After Republicans swept to power in dozens of state legislatures in 2010, unions have spent millions battling anti-labor measures across the country. They were already smarting this year after Indiana became the first state in a decade to pass right-to-work legislation and Michigan banned automatic deduction of union dues from teacher paychecks.


Their loss in Wisconsin far overshadowed the unions’ biggest political win in the past year, when Ohio voters last November struck down in a referendum a law pushed by Republican Gov. John Kasich curbing collective bargaining rights for public workers.


AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhorzer said unions should get more credit for the Ohio win and for collecting nearly 1 million signatures to initiate the Wisconsin recall. Walker and his supporters spent $47 million — compared with Democrats’ $19 million — to counter a strong union ground game that pushed voter turnout to levels usually seen during presidential contests.


“This is not an experience many politicians want to go through,” Podhorzer said.


Still, the turnout effort fell short of producing the unions’ hoped-for results. Exit polls showed voters from union households breaking 63 percent to 37 percent for Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. That’s virtually the same as in the 2010 governor’s race, even though union households represented a bigger greater share of the electorate this time.


Walker had convinced his Republican-dominated Legislature that limiting collective bargaining rights and making union members pay more for their health coverage and pensions was necessary to plug a $3.6 billion state budget shortfall. Labor leaders claimed he also wanted to cripple unions by banning automatic dues deduction for public employees.


Since the new Wisconsin law took effect, the state’s second largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has lost nearly half of its members in the state, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press. The documents show that between March 2011 and February 2012, Wisconsin membership in AFSCME dropped from 63,577 to 34,942.


As national union membership has dwindled to just 11.8 percent of the workforce, the one growth area in recent years has been among teachers, firefighters and other government employees. Public sector workers now represent more than half of all union members.


Some governors may be reluctant to create the kind of stark divisions seen in Wisconsin, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


“Are these governors going to campaign on more attacks on public sector unions?” Lichtenstein said. “I don’t think they are. It’s clear they got a lot of pushback, it’s divisive. It’s difficult to be a governor with complete polarization.”


Russo, the labor professor at Youngstown State, said the lesson of Wisconsin may be to take on unions in smaller steps rather than through sweeping measures as in Ohio and Wisconsin.


Michigan Rep. Mike Shirkey, a Republican who backed a new law prohibiting schools from deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks, said the Walker victory provides “additional spine-stiffening” for lawmakers looking at challenging union leaders.


“It basically puts some wind in our sail to continue down the road that we’ve already been on to advance free-market principles across the economy of Michigan, including in the behavior and performance of union leadership,” Shirkey said.


Unions in Michigan are already trying to gather enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot this November that would amend the state constitution to prohibit the right-to-work laws they fear Republicans will pass.


In New Hampshire, Republicans were unable to override Democratic Gov. John Lynch’s veto of a right-to-work measure last year. But Lynch is not running for re-election this year, and a victory by conservatives could revive that effort. New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien “will continue to prioritize right-to-work legislation,” spokeswoman Shannon Shutts said.


In New Mexico, Walker’s victory could embolden Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s effort to limit that state’s collective bargaining law. Through legal action, she has won control of a board that oversees public worker contract disputes.


And in Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad, two seats shy of a GOP lock on the Legislature, said he would propose requiring state workers, some who pay nothing toward their health insurance, to shoulder 20 percent of their premiums.


“Every state’s situation’s a little different ... but we kind of follow what each other is doing, and I’ve been inspired,” Branstad said.


Associated Press writers David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo., and Thomas Beaumont in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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