The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 22, 2011

Don’t think there’s a Republican vendetta against unions? Hmm, let’s take a look around

By The Building Tradesman

If it were a football game, we’d call it “piling on.”

Emboldened by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s blatant effort to bust that state’s public employee unions, conservative lawmakers from around the nation have seemingly tried to out-do each other when it comes to unique efforts to bash unions.
Not content with a labor movement that is down to historic lows in terms of workforce representation, many hard-right conservatives seem inclined to kick, and even kill the union monster so it can never again impede the will of corporations or abusive employers.

Following is a sampler of some of what’s being done and said to bust the American labor movement.
*The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives on April 1 voted to retain a radical union election provision that can’t help but to confirm the impression that they’re out to destroy unions.

Republicans inserted a provision in a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill addressing union representation voting in the airline and railway industries. The bill would count eligible voters who are absent in such elections as “no” votes. Voting on the bill was close, and it had Republican detractors – but it had plenty of GOP support and was adopted 220-206. The AFL-CIO called it “an undemocratic and unfair standard different from every other American election.”
This amendment won’t pass the Democratically-controlled Senate and President Obama has pledged a veto, anyway. “The administration is committed to help working Americans exercise their right to organize under a fair and free process,” the White House said in a statement.
* In Florida, it’s apparently not enough to be a right-to-work state. One piece of Republican legislation would explicitly prevent a state employee from enjoying the convenience of having his union dues paid automatically from his paycheck.

According to the DailyKos website: “This is all about silencing the working class, period. But the GOP legislators can’t even think up a good excuse to push this bill through. The Senate sponsor, Sen. Thrasher, tried to say that the paycheck deduction is about costing the state money, which is a lie. His house co-sponsor, Chris Dorworth, even admits that cost has nothing to do with it. They tried some argument about fairness, but that doesn’t fly either.”

* In late March, Maine’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage ordered the removal of a 36-foot-wide mural in the lobby of the state’s Department of Labor building in Augusta.

“The mural sends a message that we’re one-sided, and I don’t want to send that message,” LePage told a radio station. And how did the mural offend his conservative sensibilities? The art work was a portrayal of the state’s labor history, depicting scenes with Rosie the Riveter, child laborers, and a 1937 shoe mill strike.

Gov. LePage also ordered that the conference rooms in the Labor Department building be renamed – one is named for the first female U.S. labor secretary, Frances Perkins, another for farm laborer organizer Cesar Chavez and several others for figures from the state’s labor past.

Judy Taylor, a local artist, won a state competition with the mural to tell the story of Maine’s labor history. “I don’t agree that it’s one-sided,” she told the New York Times. “It’s based on historical fact.” Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, told MaineToday Media that LePage’s decision to remove the mural shows “the governor is much more interested in picking fights with labor than creating jobs that people so desperately want.”

For good measure, two right-to-work bills have been introduced in Maine’s legislature.

* Nebraska is a right-to-work state with weak unions. But again, that’s not enough.

The Associated Press reported March 30: “In the struggle between governors and unions over public employee costs, Nebraska would seem like an unlikely battleground. Teacher salaries are modest, workers pay toward their benefits and a right-to-work law prevails. But Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and the Republican-controlled Legislature have taken a bead this session at one aspect of state law that has produced occasional victories for unionized workers.”

A package of Republican bills released late last month addresses “frustration” with the pro-labor decisions of the state’s Commission of Industrial Relations, which resolves labor disputes between public workers and their employers. Various versions of legislation would strip the commission’s ability to set wages and work conditions, remove its jurisdiction over health and retirement benefits and exclude it from cases involving public school teachers.

* He said it: “It’s a bigger issue than people think, and it’s something that I’m going to work a lot on, because I really don’t think that collective bargaining has any place in representative government,” said Congressman Jim DeMint, R-S.C., last month.

* In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich and Republican majorities in both houses of state government adopted an anti-worker law that would limit collective bargaining for workers in a plan that’s even worse for public workers than what was passed in Wisconsin.

The state’s 350,000 teachers, police, fire fighters and other public workers, could bargain only on wages, hours, and employment terms and conditions. Their employers, the governments, could unilaterally set terms – or dump – health benefits and pension contributions and change workforce levels.

“What we are doing in this state is designed to make sure that your kids have a future in this state,” Kasich told a reporter. “That your kids can stay in this state, that they can have jobs in this state and that your family can be prosperous.” Apparently those things were not possible before the law was passed last month.

* In Iowa, another Wisconsin-style law would change the state’s collective bargaining law to allow the legislature or governor to veto decisions made by an arbitrator on labor decisions for state workers, and remove state employees’ ability to negotiate over health care or retirement plans. Iowa is already a right-to-work state, but other Republican legislation, according to the Iowa Independent, would further bust unions by allowing employees to become “free agents,” who can negotiate their terms of employment directly with employers even if they are in a union shop.

* In the Hoosier State, from the AP: “The political showdown in the Indiana Statehouse got its start with a contentious ‘right-to-work’ bill, but it is being kept alive by a wide array of labor-related proposals that Democrats hadn’t been able to stop. Newly empowered House Republicans have aimed to also strictly limit collective bargaining for teachers, permanently ban union contracts for state workers and exempt many government construction projects from the state’s prevailing wage law.”

* In Tennessee, teachers are some of the only public employees with the legal authority to negotiate pay, benefits and working conditions. Maybe not for long. On March 5, thousands of teachers protested at the state capitol in Nashville to protest Republican proposals to limit collective bargaining rights.

Preserving the status quo would be a bigger win in right-to-work Tennessee than in Midwestern states, labor expert Dan Cornfield of Vanderbilt University told Nashville Public Radio. He said unions are used to hostility, and losing collective bargaining wouldn’t be quite the shock it would be elsewhere.

“That would only be reaffirming of a traditional, weak labor movement in the South,” Cornfield told NPR. “If collective bargaining is retained in Tennessee, that would have a strong, positive effect I would think nationally for the labor movement.”