Congress has more than a passing interest in the fight over union dues and political contributions in Wisconsin. Every Democrat in the House and Senate is in this fight.
So, wouldn’t it be ironic if Republican Gov. Scott Walker ended up as the savior of the congressional Democrats and national unions? Over the last week, his bullying approach to dealing with unions has breathed new life into the labor movement and left-wing politics.
The public image of unions and Democrats are intertwined and until Walker got to Madison they were so badly tangled that they were crashing. American opinion of unions stood near “their lowest level in a quarter century,” according to Pew polling.
By a wide margin, 36 percent to 24 percent, Americans told Pew Research just before the Wisconsin fight that unions hurt American companies trying to compete internationally. Americans are also uncertain these days whether unions help with workplace productivity and creating jobs, according to the poll.
It is no secret that union membership has been in an inexorable decline for the last four decades. Twenty-two states have some form of a right-to-work law where labor unions are prohibited from negotiating with employers and union dues are entirely optional. In the remaining states, union membership is declining along with the amount of money unions collect from membership dues.
All of this has been happening amidst decades of infighting and power plays in the union leadership. Things got so bad that the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters split from the AFL-CIO in 2005, fracturing one of the oldest labor coalitions in American history.
From the days of Franklin Roosevelt they aligned with the Democratic Party as an opposing force to the political powers of Wall Street, big business and free-market ethos of the GOP. At its best, the American labor movement made life better for millions of workers by ensuring they were treated fairly and humanely.
What Americans like about unions, according to this month’s Pew poll, is their power to bargain for better salaries and benefits and improved working conditions. The idea of standing up for the working man also animates the best image of national Democrats.
But those romantic perceptions of the unions — and national Democrats -- are disappearing. The teachers’ unions that block school reform have done serious damage to the union brand. The public no longer views unions as their friend, much less their champion. They view them as corrupt, intransigent and more interested in protecting their political clout within the Democratic Party than protecting their members or even school children.
That bad image was spreading from the unions to the Democrat politicians who fill their campaign coffers with union money and then repay union leaders with state and federal dollars by approving generous pension and benefit plans that often exceed packages offered in the private sector.
Wisconsin unions are willing take salary cuts, even pay more into pension and benefit plans, but with strong backing from Democrats they have drawn a line at Walker’s attempt to deny them collective bargaining rights. The governor’s real goal appears to be to stop union dues from being channeled into political campaigns at the direction of Democrat-leaning union leaders.
Republican governors in Indiana and Michigan have stayed away from such direct attacks on the political power of unions. But if Wisconsin’s Walker prevails other Republican governors will follow his success.
For now, Republicans in Congress do not want to be seen as union busters.
“Democrats want to continue the story line that the GOP is out to destroy unions,” said Paul Lindsay, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “They are not talking about budget problems on the state and national level. That is our concern … what we are talking about.”
Democrats see union busting as the Republican goal. That is why President Obama called Walker’s efforts in Wisconsin an “assault on unions.” In 2010 the top 10 overall campaign contributors consisted of seven conservative groups and only three liberal ones. Those three groups were the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, SEIU and the National Education Association, the largest teachers union. The bottom line here is that if unions are knocked out of the game Republicans will have a monopoly on big campaign contributions.
That’s why the best hope for congressional Democrats is that Walker may have over-reached in his recent push to limit the rights of public sector unions. A USA Today/Gallup poll found last week that 61 percent of Americans side with the unions in the Wisconsin fight.
It is fitting that AFSCME, the largest public sector employees union in the country, was born in Madison, Wis. It remains an open question whether the city will now be host to the beginning of its demise as a political force in service to national Democrats.