Several Republican governors are trying to weaken organized labor in the one place it has remained strong: representing public employees.State, county and city employees do not have the right to bargain collectively under the National Labor Relations Act. Those rights have to be provided on a state by state basis. Only 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed comprehensive public-sector labor-relations laws which provide collective bargaining rights to public employees at state and local levels.
First-term Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt rescinded collective-bargaining rights for state employees this year, undoing an executive order issued by a Democratic predecessor, and has eliminated a state board overseeing union elections for public employees. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a former Bush White House budget director, overturned an executive order that for 15 years provided collective-bargaining rights for that state's public employees. And Maryland's Robert Ehrlich, backed by the state Supreme Court, suspended a 2% pay increase unions had negotiated for state employees with his predecessor.
The three governors, following earlier moves by Kentucky's Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, say that their actions are warranted in an environment where state budgets are just beginning to recover from severe stress, and that public employees' unions waste resources and block government restructuring efforts.
The reason for the sudden interest in the right of public employees soon came clear: the discussion was actually about the alleged rift between the "Change to Win" coalition (primarily SIEU), and the AFL-CIO (primarily AFSCME) over how much support labor should give to Republicans.
The media -- somewhat with assistance of the Change to Win (CtW)coalition -- loves to portray the rift as if one side only wants to organize (CTW) and the other (the AFL-CIO) only wants to play politics.
They also love to point out that SEIU and the Teamsters have given money to Republican politicians and talk of reducing labor's dependence on Democrats, increasing the rift between the two factions.
Last year, SEIU sparked controversy within organized labor by donating more than $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association, one of several ways that its strategy diverged from some other AFL-CIO unions. Organized labor -- particularly public-employee unions -- generally has been more generous to Democrats. Mr. McEntee excoriated the SEIU for funding an association that backs some antiunion governors, including Gov. Blunt. "You have no control over where the money goes," he says.But generally the media focuses on the issue of labor support for Republicans as a "democracy" issue -- as if it's unfair for unions to strongly support Democrats because there are sizable numbers of members who are Republicans. (This is the alleged reason behind California's upcoming anti-union "Paycheck
"Missouri taxpayers ought to determine how state employees are compensated, not some arbitrary arrangement between a government bureaucrat and a labor union," Mr. Blunt told the Associated Press shortly after his decision.AFSCME is often villified as a union too focused on politics because, after all, critics say, they get to elect their bosses. Of course, having worked for AFSCME for many years, the fact is that AFSCME often supports politicians who turn out to forget that support when they're finally elected, and AFSCME will support Governors and Mayors -- Republican or Democrat -- when they treat the unions with respect, and just as vigorously oppose Mayors and Governors -- Republican or Democrat -- when they don't.
Public-employee union leaders are "just concerned with their own welfare," says Spence Jackson, spokesman for Gov. Blunt. "The governor believes that state employees have the best employer in the world -- the taxpayers of this state."
"That's bull," says Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "We have reached out in almost every state to address [efficiency issues]. Who better knows the problems in the states besides public employees?"
Mr. McEntee rejects claims that AFSCME can't work with Republicans; it is the type of Republicans that matters. "We're going to support moderate Republicans, if we can find them," he says, citing relationships with "fair-minded" Republican former governors such as George Voinovich of Ohio, James R. Thompson of Illinois and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. Those governors presided over states that have been union strongholds. Almost half of the nation's 15.5 million union members live in six states: California, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio.After all, for all the media's talk of SEIU shunning politics in favor of organizing, the union was no piker in the last election, spending an estimated $65 million to get John Kerry elected. Nor are they avoiding electoral politics now.
The fact is that while there are always going to be questions about how to split the pie, all unions need to organize and be involved in politics at the same time. The real issue may be more of emphasis. Both sides admit that both politics and organizing are important. CtW argues that you can't be politically effective if you don't organize more members, whereas ASFCME and the AFL-CIO argue that until we straighten out the political situation, we'll never be able to organize enough members to make a difference.
And the fact is -- and there is little disagreement between either union group -- that Democrats are generally more pro-labor than Republicans. Of course, as usual, real life is more complicated than that. While it's undoubtedly better for labor to have Democrats in power than Republicans, to what extent do you punish Democrats for supporting anti-labor issues like CAFTA or repeal of the Ergonomics standard? Do you punish Democrats who vote wrong even though it may make it harder to win a Democratic majority? Do you reward Republicans that have supported you even if you're making it harder for Democrats to regain a majority? Do you contribute to entities like the Republican Governors Association because maybe it will earn you some good will after the election even if they use the money to support clearly anti-labor candidates?
These are not easy questions, and union continue to struggle with them, although there seems to be new resolve to punish Democrats who don't support labor on such issues as CAFTA. Nor are the issues so black and white between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. Both have to play politics -- during elections and in Congress -- if they're going to represent their members well. There are far too many vital legislative issues -- on all levels of government -- that directly affect their members to ignore politics. So both the AFL and CtW are going to continue to wrestle with these issues discussed above -- at the same time they try to organize new members. The decisions will be interesting to watch -- between coalitions, between unions and within unions. One thing is true, however -- no union and no group of unions is swearing off politics or organizing. They've all got to do both to survive.