Republican governors in a few spots across the country are angering state employees by removing one of organized labor's strongest tools — the right to collective bargaining.
Governors in three states who've taken the step say it's about making government more efficient or being fair to non-union workers. Critics say it's political payback for labor's traditional support of Democrats and part of a wider shift to undermine workers in favor of big business.
Within hours or days of taking office this year, Mitch Daniels (search) in Indiana and Matt Blunt (search) in Missouri eliminated collective bargaining agreements for state employees, affecting about 50,000 workers. Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (search) did the same when he took office in 2003. In each case, the agreements had only been granted by executive order, not by law.
In Mississippi, where state employees don't have collective bargaining rights, GOP Gov. Haley Barbour supports a legislative effort to eliminate existing civil-service protections. In Oklahoma, the GOP-controlled state House approved a measure to repeal a law granting collective bargaining to municipal employees.
Blunt said the union rules of the business world should not apply to government. "Fundamentally, public employees are different than private sector employees — their employer is the people of Missouri," he said on his first day in office. "Taxpayers should not be bound by collective bargaining agreements."
Union leaders see the actions as concerted effort among new, more conservative leaders, and tie it to President Bush, whose administration exempted some employees from collective bargaining at the Homeland Security Department.
"It's unconscionable. This is about the very soul of our movement," said Andy Levin of the AFL-CIO (search), who said his group will fight the governors' efforts. "Collective bargaining is how we built the middle class in this country."
Spokesmen for the governors all dismissed any notion that they had acted together, pointing out that each had their own motivation. None of the governors responded to requests for interviews.
In Missouri, Blunt had fought the unions for years as secretary of state, particularly over bargaining fees charged to state employees who aren't union members, and vowed during the campaign to rescind a 2001 executive order that allowed collective bargaining.
Fletcher spokeswoman Jeanne Lausche in Kentucky said the governor had promised to streamline state government and "ensure that tax dollars are expended in a business-like manner." Daniels said his decision would allow him to more swiftly improve government services.
After he eliminated collective bargaining, he immediately created a separate, cabinet-level agency to oversee child protection services, a step he said would have been slowed by union negotiations.
The governors' actions come amid a round of soul-searching and turmoil for the nation's labor movement, which has been watching union membership slide in the past few decades, down to 12.5 percent of wage and salary workers in 2004.
Representation among government workers remains labors' strongest base, at 36 percent. Private industry alone is at 7.9 percent, according to the Labor Department.
The ability to negotiate with employers with the strength that comes from a united group is the basic tool of unions. But comprehensive bargaining — defined as the ability to bargain over wages, benefits and work conditions — is only allowed in 25 states, according to the AFL-CIO.
The fight is often a seesaw. In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson signed a law in 2003 giving bargaining rights to public workers, after years of opposition from former Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican.
The GOP strategy aims to weaken a foundation of the Democratic party, said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, with 1.5 million members. "I see this as an effort to make the Republican right-wing conservatives the party of the future for a long, long time."
He worried about other efforts by Republican governors that weigh heavily on government workers — Arnold Schwarzenneger's struggle in California over pensions for state workers and Robert Ehrlich's proposal in Maryland to raise state employees' health care costs.
Yet there's no denying that unions have traditionally been more supportive of Democrats than Republicans, said Robert Bruno, an associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's an easy way to make enemies," he said.