Last week unions were handed a major defeat.  Indiana became the 23rd state to enact right to work legislation.  For a Rustbelt state to pass such legislation just a decade ago was unthinkable.  But with unions weakened by numerous fights (some victories and defeats) Indian slipped through the cracks.

Up until 2011 unions in the NE and Rustbelt, where they were most dominant, maintained their power by threatening to unload millions of dollars in campaign money against any who dared oppose them.  It is why for decades Republicans, both liberal and conservative, tolerated them and rarely crossed them.  Democrats heavily courted unions.

Case in point would be Michelle Rhee and Mayor Fenty in DC.  Though outside the Rustbelt both Rhee and Fenty dared to take on the power of the teacher’s unions in the city.  The result was over $1 million used to defeat Fenty in the Democratic primary, ensuring Rhee was out as Superintendant of Education.  Nevermind she was trying to fix a broken syste that was worse than New Orleans before Katrina.

The dire financial situation states found themselves in starting in 2010 forced many Governors, both left and right, to confront harsh realities.  New Governors elected in 2011 took different routes to confronting the power and budget busting effects of unions.  In WI and OH, Governors Scott Walker and John Kasich took on the unions directly by reducing their CBA rights to simply being able to negotiate over wages.  In Indiana two-term Governor Mitch Daniels (reelected in 2008) opted to push for right to work legislation.  And in NY and other NE Democratic controlled states negotiation with unions was the norm.

Unions could live with negotiation.  They could even live with limited reform by Michigan GOP Governor Rick Snyder.  But they could not live with what they saw as the destruction of the foundation of their existence.  But unions did not fight back just for union rights, they fought back for their very survival.  Unions have wielded power in this country for decades because they have the power to shift political races at every level.  Unions do this by collecting dues from their members.  Depending on the state these due collections can be small or large.

Since 2011 GOP Governors have been willing to take on these dues and essentially defund unions ability to affect elections through CBA reform.  In OH it resulted in unions spending over $30 million to successfully repeal SB 5 through the initiative process.  Governor Kasich and the GOP legislature remain very unpopular.  In WI it has resulted in a bitter legislative process.  A very contested Supreme Court race to see the bill be stopped or opposed (even though legal races are technically non-partisan) and a series of recalls of six GOP state senators and 3 Democrats.  Two GOP senators were recalled but the GOP held a slim 17-16 majority in the state senate.  But unions have spent even more to start a recall of Scott Walker, his Lt. Governor and four more GOP state senators.

Indiana has been the calm in the storm.  Unlike in OH or WI, Indiana does not have an initiative or recall process.  Furthermore, unlike OH and WI the state has not been a swing state in quite some time.  Since the 60’s the GOP has dominated the state at the local and federal level.  So Indiana was the perfect place for the GOP to confront the unions and have a clear-cut victory.  It took over a year, massive demonstrations and Democratic lawmakers walking out of the process but in the end it passed.  In OH the attempt was an abject failure.  In WI CBA reform is law is but depending on the results of the recalls the effort to limit union power could be seriously strengthened or stalled.

This week Congressional Republicans held a hearing on union practices, particularly how they collect dues.  It is a little known fact, but true, that over 40% of union members vote for Republicans.  But do to the fact non-right-to-work states force you to join a union if you enter a certain profession workers have no choice but to pay dues to unions.  In other words these members are forced to fund a machine that takes the their dues and use those dues to elect Democrats.  Over 90% of union spending on elections goes to Democrats and almost all the rest to non-partisan races where the unions support a pro-union candidate.

Congressional Republicans have also been involved in fighting unions in the form of the NRLB since 2011.  The president angered Congressional Republicans first by backing the NRLB’s essentially extortion of Boeing in regards to the South Carolina plant (long back story).  More recently the recess appointing of three new liberal members to the Board. The hearing this week only highlights that Congressional Republicans are now willing to fight back against unions.

The fact Congressional Republicans may now be getting involved only further highlights the troubled path unions face going forward.  Unions have lost essentially three efforts in WI (stopping passage of the CBA reform bill, loss of the state SC race, and the failure to take control of the senate through recalls), won a massive victory in OH and lost in IN.  If Congressional Republicans get into the fight union resources will be stretched even thinner. Even they have limits, especially after dues in IN and WI start to dry up.

Union membership as a total of the overall workforce has been dropping.  Worse, while it has been rising in states in the West and South, it has been dropping in the Rustbelt, the heart of union membership.  This further limits unions ability to fight back against efforts by Governors and legislators to minimize their power. 

It is noticeable how much money unions have had to drop on just state level issues.  Over $50 million in WI (with still more to be spent), at least $30 million in OH and an unknown amount in Indiana.  They have not even had a chance to recoup that money and shift it to supporting President Obama and Democrats in federal races.  Of course they will, but the resources unions could bring to bear will be limited.

Unions face a troubled future going forward.  GOP Governors are actively working for the first time in decades to limit their electoral power.  Democratic Governors, such as Andrew Cuomo in NY, is more willing to take them on publicly and privately.  Even Congressional Republicans believe they now can take on the power of the unions.   If the current working demographics continue and GOP Governors in other states (most notably PA and MI) decide to take on the unions things could become even more troubled for unions.


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