A union member marches up Fifth Ave during the Labor Day parade, Saturday, September 8, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
On Tuesday, Michigan voters will pass final judgment on whether public workers should fork over their bargaining rights to politically appointed “emergency managers.” California will consider forcing unions to hand-collect any dues money used for politics. And Georgia and Washington will vote on paving the way for waves of new non-union charter schools.
As a labor movement in crisis goes once more to the mat for Barack Obama, these state elections reflect the crucial context: US unions are on defensive. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, who leads the country’s largest union, says members worry, “What if Congress and the office of the president had the same philosophies that we saw in Ohio and Wisconsin and Alabama and Idaho and Arizona? And I think they realize that the stakes are very high.”
In 2008, unions invested unprecedented time and money to elect Obama president. Four years later, the results are mixed. The president passed labor-backed healthcare and banking reforms, but barely offered lip service to the anti-union-busting Employee Free Choice Act. He appointed National Mediation Board members who made it easier for airline and railroad workers to organize, then signed a law that made it harder. His stimulus funds kept teachers on the job, but his Race to the Top rewarded states that made it easier to fire them. He stepped up trade cases against China, but pushed a massive NAFTA-style trade pact. After initially acceding to obstructionism, Obama defied GOP stalling tactics and recess-appointed a pro-labor majority to the National Labor Relations Board. But after proposing a regulation restricting child workers from using dangerous equipment on factory farms, his Labor Department scuttled it.
While Obama and his fellow Democrats have sent mixed messages on labor rights, you can’t say the same about the GOP. In the states, Republicans have laid off slews of public workers, frontally assaulted collective bargaining and even tried to ban picketers from disrupting “quiet enjoyment.” In Congress, they’ve pushed laws to make it harder for workers to organize, and easier for companies to get away with busting unions by moving factories.