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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Labor Day Assessment of the Past Year
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Michael Gould-Wartofsky

On Labor Day 2011, things looked bleak for the U.S. labor movement. More than forty-five thousand Verizon workers had gone on strike and returned to work without a contract. Public sector workers were under serious attack. Republican governors—Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio— had declared all-out war on unions, but even Democratic governors had a go:

Deval Patrick in Massachusetts removed the right of public sector unions to bargain over health care, and Andrew Cuomo in New York ran on a platform of going after unions.

Has the terrain shifted in the past year? Not very much. But there were hopeful signs as well, suggesting that labor might be finding new allies and at least starting a serious fightback.

What was good, bad, and ugly this past year?

Public Sector

The attacks on public sector unions had already been underway for years in states such as Indiana, where the governor eliminated collective bargaining rights for state workers in 2005, long before the economic crisis. And workers in some states, many in the South, never won their right to organize or bargain in the first place. But the Wisconsin case was newsworthy because of the boldness of Walker's attack, and the degree of protest with which it was met. The level of oppositional organizing has been impressive. The initial protests were historic and, in two election cycles, Democrats recalled two senators and took back control of the Senate. Activists collected an unprecedented number of signatures (more than one million in two months) to recall Walker.

Yet failing to recall Walker was a major defeat. Despite some polls suggesting a close race, Walker won by almost seven percentage points, and the race was called less than an hour after the polls had closed. Even more discouraging, according to exit polls by Hart Research, 15 percent of public sector union members and 31 percent of private sector union members voted for Walker. Almost 40 percent of those in union households did the same. While money played a big part in the election (some estimates show that Walker outspent his Democratic opponent Tom Barrett by more than seven to one), this provides an insufficient explanation for the level of support Walker received from union members: about 8 percent of his votes.

Even if Wisconsinites had succeeded in recalling Walker, Tom Barrett is not known as a friend to labor, given his relations with unions in Milwaukee. The recall strategy shows the limitations of electoralism, especially when labor does not have candidates of its own to run. Electing a Democrat is no guarantee, as we saw with Mayor Chuck Reed who helped pass public sector pension restructuring in San Jose, California, and the host of Democratic governors who have been laying off state workers. It is not enough to simply defeat anti-union candidates when labor does not have the capacity to put pro-union candidates into office.

The story in Ohio is similarly complicated. Governor Kasich launched an equally aggressive campaign against public sector unions there, and won an initial battle with the passage of Senate Bill 5 which restricted collective bargaining rights. But unions mobilized a referendum campaign and successfully overturned the bill in a decisive vote. This was a victory for the labor movement overall, but whether it results in a stronger labor movement in the state is too early to tell.

Meanwhile, public sector unions in other states are losing members. The Indiana story is instructive in this regard: after the loss of collective bargaining rights in 2005 union density among state workers fell steadily, going from 66 percent in 2005 to under 7 percent today. According to initial reports, public sector unions have struggled to re-sign the majority of their members to the union after Walker's Act 10 was enacted. For example, one report shows that from March 2011 to February 2012, AFSCME membership in the state dropped from 63,577 to 34,942.

Nationally, almost half of public sector employees work in education, where the attacks are not just against teachers' unions but against public teachers and public schools. Stand for Children...


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