Whenever the Right takes power in the United States – from the United States Presidency to a state capitol – it sets its sights on strengthening the conservative lock on power structurally by making changes to our elections processes. It also doubles down on weakening a key source of our progressive power: labor unions. If your goal is to expand the power of corporations and the one percent, taking down unions is a strategy that makes sense, as unions have been critical players in electing progressives to office, giving voice to millions of workers and their families, advocating for economic and social justice, and improving wages and working conditions for millions of Americans. Labor unions have powerful advocacy operations that fight for policies that help level the economic playing field for all Americans, whether they belong to a union or not.
If you want to fight income inequality in America, you can do it through government policy on wages and work, or you can do it in offices, stores and factories through collective bargaining and collective action. Strong labor unions are critical to both. Labor unions help expand economic opportunity and raise the income floor for all workers – unionized or not – through strong advocacy in Washington, DC and in state capitols across the country for living wages, quality affordable healthcare and college, family and medical leave, sensible trade policies that don’t ship American jobs overseas, corporate transparency and accountability, ending employment discrimination, and much more. They also advocate for priorities like workplace safety and efficiency.
Moreover, for decades labor has been a key pillar of support for progressives both electorally and in the broader network of critical “infrastructure” institutions like think tanks and organizing networks – as Newt Gingrich once put it, for the “army on the ground.” The Democracy Alliance has been a key engine of support for building sustainable progressive infrastructure – similar to what the Right has built – and labor has been a significant funder of that infrastructure. The right is well aware that if labor unions shrink in size, they’ll have less dues revenue to spend supporting progressive candidates and infrastructure, and funding issue advocacy campaigns like the fight to pay fast food workers $15 an hour.
“The Democracy Alliance has been a key engine of support for building sustainable progressive infrastructure… and labor has been a significant funder of that infrastructure.”
We have fresh evidence at hand from the November election. Narrow losses in three states that had been part of a “blue wall” for Democrats since 1992 – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency. Right-wing governors elected in 2010, particularly Rick Snyder of Michigan and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, wasted no time in trying to decimate public employee unions, and you can draw a forensic line from the toll those campaigns took (in Michigan union membership dropped 21,000 members between 2010 and 2016, while it fell 136,000 in Wisconsin during the same time frame) to the catastrophe that is the Trump Presidency. It is clear in those states that voter participation among unionized workers dropped significantly in 2016, which means that the unions’ ability to educate and turn out their members to vote in elections was hampered as well as the unions’ ability to drive resources to other electoral efforts.
The Right controls all branches of government in thirty states – more than any time since the Hoover Administration – and is not wasting the opportunity to weaken labor further. This year, two states, Kentucky and Missouri, already passed “right-to-work” laws that gutted collective bargaining rights, and similar bills were introduced in California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington, Puerto Rico and Virginia. Most troubling about legislation in Virginia is that right-to-work is already enshrined in the state constitution, and voters defeated an effort to toughen it further in a referendum last year. With the narrow defeat of right-to-work this year in New Hampshire, 28 states and Guam now have right-to-work laws.
The Right has also been busy trying to unravel prevailing wage laws, which require that employers pay minimum wages on work funded by public dollars. These laws ensure that companies accepting taxpayer dollars don’t drive down wages and working conditions, of critical importance to military families, construction workers, and educators. Besides passing right-to-work, Kentucky also repealed its prevailing wage law earlier this year.
In the Obama Administration, former Secretary Tom Perez may have been the most effective Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins, the first person to hold the office. Now that there is a Republican trifecta in Washington, many of Perez’s accomplishments – like raising the rates at which overtime pay kicks in – are under assault, and the Right’s anti-labor wish list has gained new momentum. Right-to-work legislation was introduced in the House by Rep. Steve King of Iowa in early February and has numerous co-sponsors. Whether it passes the Congress, as Salon noted, there is a ripple effort: “A national fight over a right-to-work law would bring increased attention to the issue on the state level and would make it harder for sympathetic state Republicans to remain under the radar.” Other threats include:
- The Truth in Employment Act, making it easier to fire workers who have union sympathies;
- repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires paying prevailing wages for federally funded construction projects; and
- Attacks on the Fair Labor Standards Act, to allow private-sector employers to “compensate” hourly workers with compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay.
This flurry of anti-union activity is not coincidental – it flows from a lavishly-funded, highly coordinated campaign by the Koch Brothers and their allies. Just last week, the Center for Media and Democracy exposed the right-wing Bradley Foundation’s long campaign to undermine unions, including grants to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation because “…Big Labor and trial attorneys are the two principal funding pillars of the left.”
Finally, there is the threat to labor from the Supreme Court, with a restored conservative majority thanks to the outrageous theft by Senate Republicans of the seat to which President Obama nominated Merrick Garland. Last year, in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the Court was widely seen as likely to impair the ability of public sector unions to collect a fair share of fees for the advocacy and representation they provide to workers. As In These Times wrote, the case involved “Fair-share fees, or agency fees [which] require workers represented by a union to pay the portion of fees that covers collective bargaining. They seek to balance the worker’s right to dissent from the union by relinquishing membership and not paying for activities that aren’t related to collective bargaining, with the union’s right to avoid free riders and not be forced to represent a worker who contributes nothing.”
“This flurry of anti-union activity is not coincidental.”
With the death of Justice Scalia, the Court deadlocked 4-4. Now a new case, Janus v. AFSCME, is making its way back up to the Supreme Court. And with the installation of Justice Neal Gorsuch, the likely outcome, sometime in next year, is a narrow but consequential defeat for labor. This case, like its predecessor Friedrichs, would ultimately weaken unions’ ability to advocate for their members by weakening collective bargaining strength and playing into the Right’s strategy to “divide and conquer” within the labor movement.
Over and over again, when the Right has taken power – often, as with the Garland nomination, by any means necessary, upending established norms – its first priority has been to go after key sources of progressive strength, which is why labor is always at the top of their list. Sadly, progressives in power have often been amateurs at this game, rarely taking steps to strengthen labor legislation or firm up other sources of progressive clout. But we have to get better, and the first step is to stand with labor in resisting the array of assaults they face from the Trump administration and Republican governors and legislators.