Opinion Columns & Blogs

GOP assault on unions smacks of overreach

The current assault on public unions is by no means guaranteed to succeed. The whole strategy, nurtured for decades by conservative activists and their corporate backers, smacks of serious overreach.

Put simply, it's a radical move to strip unions of their collective-bargaining rights. And most Americans tend to be wary of radicalism.

Wisconsin is the laboratory for this experiment. It has a double-digit budget deficit, a new Republican governor whose candidacy was heavily bankrolled by anti-union interests, and a new Republican Legislature.

Gov. Scott Walker, in his third month on the job, seeks not only to extract economic concessions from these unions but to bust them — by stripping their bargaining rights, barring them from using worker dues for political operations, and forcing them to stage annual elections on whether they should remain in existence.

The public is already weighing in. Gallup reported the other day that 61 percent of Americans don't want to strip public unions of their bargaining rights; only 33 percent said "yes" to the Wisconsin idea. Most important, only 31 percent of independent swing voters favor the move.

In other words, even though Americans generally have mixed feelings about unions, they view emasculation as extremism. If Walker and his well-heeled backers — notably the industrialist Koch brothers, longtime financiers of anti-union think tanks — hope to win hearts and minds nationwide, it would appear that the bar may be higher than first anticipated.

Indeed, a number of Republican governors already have bailed on the crusade. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels said the other day that the stripping of bargaining rights should be pursued in "a better time and place." (He didn't specify one.) In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott said, "My belief is, as long as people know what they're doing, collective bargaining is fine," which, for a newly elected Republican, is akin to joining a picket line.

The GOP ideally would love to break the public unions — which represent 36 percent of all public workers — because they tilt heavily toward Democratic candidates. If those unions went away, pro-Republican corporate dollars would dominate the political process to an extent not yet seen, with a monumental assist from the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling that essentially freed up corporate largesse. (The playing field already is asymmetrical; in the 2010 races, according to federal figures, 71 percent of all the political action committee money came from business PACs. Labor's share of the total PAC money? Fifteen percent.)

For that breakage to occur, Republicans need to convince voters that their states have gone bust because of public-union greed. But the premise is flawed. There is no slam-dunk correlation.

North Carolina, for instance, bars its government workers from bargaining — yet it currently has the 10th-worst budget deficit in the nation, 7 percentage points higher than unionized Wisconsin. In fact, of the 10 states that reportedly are in the best fiscal shape, eight (Indiana, West Virginia, Montana, Massachusetts, Delaware, New Mexico, Hawaii and Michigan) are unionized.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to blame the Great Recession, and its still-resonating aftershocks, on the rampant Wall Street hyperspeculators — instead of scapegoating teachers, nurses and other recipients of middle-class paychecks.