Monday, February 28, 2011

What Losing Unions Means for Democrats

Summary: Why Wisconsin's "budget repair" bill is really about giving the GOP unlimited power.

By now, everyone is aware of what’s happening here in Wisconsin.

Our newly elected governor, Republican Scott Walker, has introduced a “budget repair bill” that would strip public-sector workers of their collective bargaining rights.

Although there are budget-balancing measures in the bill, it goes far beyond that.

What the bill would do to public-sector labor organizations:
• Prevent collective bargaining over salaries and wages beyond cost-of-living adjustments
• Ban collective bargaining over pensions and health care benefits as well as working conditions
• Stop unions from receiving dues through paycheck deductions
• Require the unions to hold annual elections among their members for the recertification of the union.

When you put all these things together, it is obvious that many public employees will ask the same question: why keep the union?

Make no mistake, if this bill passes in the form Walker is demanding, it will dissolve public employee unions.

Walker claims the bill is to prevent a $137 million shortfall in the state’s budget, and to close the gap public employees needed to put approximately 6% of their income toward their pensions and 12% of their income toward their health care plans.

The unions conceded on those grounds long ago.

So state Democrats issued a proposal that would balance the budget -- and give Walker virtually everything he wants -- while leaving collective bargaining untouched.

Walker: “not good enough.”

Then, state Republicans offered another proposal. It would give Walker virtually everything he wants, with a two-year moratorium on collective bargaining.

Walker: “still not good enough.”

So why does Walker insist on busting unions?

At this point, it is clear that the controversial bill has nothing to do with balancing the budget. It doesn’t even have to do with destroying unions. It has to do with Democrats.

It’s often said that the Democratic Party is a “big tent” party. Well, if the Democrats are a big tent, the unions are the poles that hold it up.

Back when I worked on a congressional campaign in northeast Wisconsin, and my organization needed to quickly round up volunteers, I always told my interns to contact three groups of people:

1) Previous volunteers
2) Leaders in the local county Democratic Party.
3) The United Steelworkers

Unions are critical to the Democrats. No one else in the tent offers the same structural support. Environmental groups, LGBT groups, minority groups, and even women’s advocacy groups tend to be little more than social clubs that offer their votes and -- occasionally -- a little money.

Unions, on the other hand, are well financed and well organized for the mass support efforts needed to win elections. And with the exception of SEIU and a few others, public-sector unions like AFSCME and the teachers are the only ones left with any real strength.

Without organized labor, Democrats will lose easy votes, a ready-to-assembly pool of volunteers, and most importantly, a lot of massive PAC checks.

(Want further proof? The three public employee unions who endorsed Walker and who tend to be more conservative -- the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, and the Wisconsin Troopers’ Association -- were all exempt from his proposal.)

Simply put, without organized labor, Democrats will be neutered.

To be fair, the Republicans have a lot of similar resources (like the Tea Parties) rooted in business groups (Koch Industries being the most notorious these days). But business groups are at no risk of being broken up, especially in the age of Citizens United.

As a political operative for Democratic candidates, I have real concerns about staying in Wisconsin if this bill passes. If labor groups don’t survive, how will my party survive? If my party doesn’t survive, how will I survive?

Make no mistake; this bill is about destroying the opposition -- not balancing the budget.

No comments: