Emboldened by November’s election results, corporations and their right-wing allies have launched what they hope will be their final offensive against America’s unions. Their immediate target is government workers’ unions. While New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie has gained national fame by beating up on public school teachers, the threat to unionized workers is playing out in all fifty states, to the drumbeat in the media about states going broke because of government workers’ wages, pensions and benefits. By late January, with the swearing-in ceremonies complete in the twenty-one states where Republicans have a “trifecta,” controlling the governor’s office and both statehouses, hundreds of bills had been introduced seeking to hem in unions if not ban them altogether. On February 11, Wisconsin’s new Republican Governor Scott Walker made what amounts to a declaration of all-out war on public sector workers in his historically progressive state, moving to deprive them of the very right to bargain collectively on matters essential to their economic security.
Walker’s gambit has rightly elicited outrage, but considering the breadth of the attack unions are facing nationally, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Right-to-work legislation has been filed in twelve states; this is in addition to the twenty-two that already have such laws on the books. In technical terms, this legislation makes it illegal for employers to condition employment on union membership or the equivalent dues payments even when a majority of workers vote to form a union; practically speaking, it makes building and maintaining a strong union very difficult, which in turn makes it harder to organize new workplaces because there are few positive examples of unions to point to. In Virginia, the corporations and right-wing ideologues decided that the existing right-to-work law wasn’t sufficient, and introduced a measure to embed the right-to-work provisions in the state Constitution. Three more states—Montana, Ohio and Wisconsin—are expected to have bills introduced converting their legal status to right-to-work.
Alabama passed legislation in January that bans public employee unions from collecting dues unless the unions first prove that none of the money will be used for supporting election campaigns. In every subsequent year after the initial certification, the union must submit itemized reports accounting for how its money is being spent. This law, sold as “paycheck protection” by the right but known as “paycheck deception” among union activists, has been introduced in four other states this year, including Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri. In California there has already been ballot initiative language submitted to do the same. Using a variety of legal tools, these measures prohibit the use of union dues for political activity. Union advocates are expecting twelve more states to file bills or initiatives banning the collection of union monies for politics.
Building and construction unions are facing their own daunting lineup of bills that would gut prevailing wage laws and what are known as Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). These measures facilitate collective bargaining and the division of labor for unionized construction jobs, particularly construction jobs with public financing. In twenty states there is legislation expected to ban PLAs. In Iowa the new governor, Terry Branstad, was so excited to take up the challenge, he undid PLAs with his first executive order. The new governor of Ohio, John Kasich, has pledged to eliminate prevailing wage laws. It’s hard to say whether Missouri or Maine will beat him to his goal, though: Missouri’s legislation to ban prevailing wages has been introduced, and the new governor of Maine appointed the head of the building and construction industry organization to the position of state legislative director, a sure sign that he’s serious about eliminating such laws. The AFL-CIO says it anticipates anti–prevailing wage laws in fifteen states.