Magazine article Dissent

Gutting Public Unions

Magazine article Dissent

Gutting Public Unions

Article excerpt

Gutting Public Unions Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences by Daniel DiSalvo Oxford University Press, 2015, 304 pp.

Since the enactment of Act 10, the law that sparked massive protests four years ago in Wisconsin and that now forms the centerpiece of Governor Scott Walker's bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, average weekly wages for employees of that state have barely kept pace with inflation. And, with increased responsibilities for health insurance and pension costs, many state employees saw their takehome pay decline by 10 percent or more between 2011 and 2014. Leah Lipska, president of Local 1 of the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which was founded in Madison in 1932, told the New York Times that, by 2014, she had been forced to apply for food stamps to support her family.

Walker's law limits collective bargaining contracts to one year and requires unions to win a majority of all eligible voters-rather than the more common standard of all votes cast-in annual certification elections. Even if unions cross that hurdle, public officials are prohibited from deducting union dues from paychecks, negotiating over benefits or working conditions, or raising wages faster than the rate of inflation. Lest workers grow impatient with that administrative quagmire, Act 10 allows the governor to declare a state of emergency during which state employees can be fired for participating "in a strike, work stoppage, sit-down, stayin, slowdown, or other concerted activities to interrupt the operations or services of state government, including specifically purported mass resignations or sick calls." Stripped of any real power, unions watched helplessly as their members turned to other sources of support. "I don't see the point of being in a union anymore," one teacher told the Washington Post, explaining that he sought a part-time job to make up for the losses. "The money I'd spend on dues is way more valuable to buy groceries for my family."

Unions greeted Act 10 as a potentially fatal blow, not just in Wisconsin but also across the country. The year 2010 was the first in history that public employees accounted for more than half of all union members in the United States. This was not just due to the expansion of government and the decline of manufacturing but also to the steady erosion of legal protections for unionization and collective bargaining in the private sector. Unions won early victories in 2011, when voters sided overwhelmingly with a referendum that overturned an Ohio law similar to Act 10 and forced Walker into a recall election in Wisconsin. Flopes faded, however, as Walker won the recall by a larger margin than his original election, survived a series of legal challenges to Act 10, and used those victories to deepen his party's majority in the state legislature. In 2012, Indiana became the first Midwestern state to pass a right-to-work law, which bars unions from charging workers to represent them, followed shortly by Michigan and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, a series of legal cases imposed similar restrictions on public sector unions nationally. In the fall of 2015, the Supreme Court will rule in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that challenges a unions' ability to charge any fee for representing or negotiating on behalf of a public employee.

Given the central role that public-sector unions have played in mobilizing voters and lobbying elected officials to defend public investment in education, health care, and other social services, these were setbacks not just for organized labor but for anyone who believes the state should ensure access to such goods.

However, according to Daniel DiSalvo, a political scientist at the City University of New York and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute (a libertarian think-tank), Walker's law stands as a model for addressing "one of the diseases most incident to contemporary American democracy. …

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