GOP Power Struggle with Unions Rages on in Midwest

GOP Power Struggle with Unions Rages on in Midwest

Republican lawmakers in two of the states at the center of the conflict over union rights conceded a bit of ground a couple of weeks ago. But the high-stakes battle in those states and elsewhere is far from over.
On Feb. 23, Republicans in the Ohio Senate agreed to rework a bill eliminating collective bargaining rights for state workers (SB 5) to preserve some of those rights. The same day, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and Republican legislative leaders decided to table for the rest of the session a right-to-work bill (HB 1468) that would have prohibited employers and unions from entering into contracts requiring non-union members to pay fees for union representation. 
In the latter case, the concession was largely motivated by Daniels' lukewarm support for the measure due to concerns it would be a distraction from more important items on his legislative agenda. But Republican lawmakers in both states may also have been given at least a little pause by the USA Today/Gallup Poll released a day earlier indicating 61 percent of Americans oppose eliminating collective bargaining in their respective states. Although Republicans in particular don't have a problem with the idea, supporting it by a 54-41 percent margin, Independents oppose it by a margin of 62-31 percent. 
The concessions only go so far, however. Ohio SB 5 - which the Senate passed by the narrowest of margins last week - would only allow public workers to collectively bargain for wages, not benefits. It would also bar them from striking and do away with binding arbitration for resolving disputes with police and firefighter unions. 
The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association said the changes were a step forward, but they still weren't sold on the measure. 
"While we are encouraged that we are back in the bill for the purposes of bargaining wages, our rights are still severely limited and there is no process that would bring management to the middle in any negotiations," said OCSEA President Eddie Parks. 
In Indiana, meanwhile, the shelving of the right-to-work bill wasn't enough to lure back the Democratic lawmakers who fled the state last month to forestall a vote on the measure, which came as somewhat of a surprise to Daniels. 
"In many cases, that would have been enough," the governor said. "I'm not sure why it isn't right now." 
One of the reasons turned out to be that the Democrats are skeptical Republicans will keep their word on HB 1468. 
"Forgive us if we aren't trusting," said John Schorg, a spokesman for the Democratic legislators, who pointed out that Republican leaders had once promised not to introduce the right-to-work bill. 
The widely publicized prank phone call to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) from a liberal activist posing as conservative donor David H. Koch probably didn't do much to diminish the Indiana Democrats' skepticism either. During that 20-minute conversation, Walker mentioned the idea of using the enticement of a face-to-face meeting with Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D) to get the 14 Democratic senators who have fled his state back to the Capitol long enough to allow Republicans to pass his union-unfriendly budget repair bill. 
But HB 1468 isn't the only thing keeping Indiana Democrats away from Indianapolis. They actually have a list of 11 bills they want killed. And that list includes education reform measures that are a priority for Daniels, leaving little room for compromise. 
"It's unclear how that happens," said University of Evansville political science professor Robert Dion. "Somebody needs to blink, and there haven't been very friendly gestures in either direction." 
The gestures haven't been any friendlier in Wisconsin. On Feb. 25, Assembly Republicans abruptly cut off debate - albeit after 61 hours of it - on Walker's collective bargaining-killing budget repair bill (AB 11a) and voted to pass it. 
Democrats erupted after the vote, shouting "Shame! Shame!" as Republicans filed off the Assembly floor. Among other things, the Democrats accused Republicans of not following proper procedure in ending debate on the bill. They said they never heard Republicans invoke the rarely used rule to end debate, which requires a motion seconded by 15 members followed by a roll call vote. 
"We never imagined they would do it as they did, not even properly using the nuclear option," said Rep. Kelda Helen Roys (D). 
But Republicans said the Democrats had been given ample time to argue their case. 
"I challenge anyone watching to say we have not held out for an adequate debate," said Majority Leader Scott Suder (R). 
"The democrats were clearly stalling," said another Republican representative, Joel Kleefisch. "That's why Assembly rules allow for a vote on final passage. We took that vote and did what the people of this state asked us to do on Nov. 2 - get spending under control." 
Over in the Senate, the two-week old standoff continued, although Walker tried to end it last Monday by issuing an ultimatum to the 14 Democrats who went AWOL from the chamber, saying the state would lose its opportunity to refinance $165 million worth of bonds if SB 11a wasn't passed the following day. 
"Failure to return to work and cast their votes will lead to more painful and aggressive spending cuts in the very near future," Walker said in a statement. "This is the Senate Democrats' 24-hour notice." 
The Dems, however, have not budged. 
"The bond threat is not going to scare us one way or another," said Sen. Fred Risser (D). "The 14 of us are still united. We haven't developed any exit strategy at this time." 
Meanwhile, thousands of protesters continued to crowd the capitols in Madison, Indianapolis, Columbus and other states where union power is on the chopping block. (See Bird's eye view.) 
On Thursday, Senate Republicans found the absent Democrats to be in contempt and ordered their forcible detention by law enforcement. Questions about the legality of that action, however, suggested that it might not bring an immediate end to the crisis. 
Just six years ago, Indiana's Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, stripped most state workers of their collective bargaining rights. But at that time no legislators fled the state and no protests broke out at the Capitol. 
"It was a very quiet transition, to our surprise," recalled the state's personnel director, Daniel Hackler. 
One reason for that could be that collective bargaining rights in Indiana were never enshrined in statute. They were only granted through executive order by former Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh in 1989 and taken away by Daniels the same way. 
But the tide has also unquestionably turned for labor. Across the country, unions are facing pay and benefit cuts. And not just in states where Republicans are in charge. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), for instance, has called for a one-year salary freeze for government employees. 
The reason, of course, is largely economic: states have billions of dollars in budget gaps to close. And unions are an easy target right now. As a recent USA Today report showed, in the vast majority of states, government workers earn higher average pay and benefits than their counterparts in the private sector, although a New York Times analysis indicated there is considerable variation in pay from occupation to occupation and between college graduates and those without a college degree. 
In 2009, state, city and school district workers in Wisconsin earned about $1,800 more in wages and benefits, on average, than workers in the private sector, according to USA Today's analysis. The margin was $1,183 in Indiana and $2,392 in Ohio. While sizeable, the gaps actually don't come anywhere close to those in other states, such as California ($7,977) and Nevada ($17,815). 
But the Midwest has become the primary battleground in the conflict over union power for good reason. The region saw some of the biggest GOP gains in the 2010 elections, which Republicans have viewed as a mandate to shrink the size and scope of government. And no area of the country has suffered greater private-sector job losses, which has focused a lot of negative attention on the job security and benefits of unionized public workers. 
"There may have been a time when government employees needed protection and needed reform, but that was a long time ago," Daniels said in a speech last month. "Public jobs grew while private jobs were lost. Public salaries went up while private sectors are shrinking. It's time to interrupt that loop, in the public interest." 
But Democrats see measures like Ohio SB 5, Indiana HB 1468 and Wisconsin SB 11 as more than just efforts to tighten the budget belt or equalize public- and private-sector pay. They say the bills are aimed at undermining the Democratic Party by cutting off one of its key funding sources, a move that could be particularly consequential given last year's landmark Supreme Court decision freeing corporations and unions to make unlimited political contributions. 
"It's very simple. Wealthy individuals and corporations can still give six-, seven-, eight-figure checks to all the candidates, state parties and causes they want to," said Democratic strategist Michael Fraioli. "If you take away unions and their ability to cut at the heart of our financial support." 
Republican governors also can't have failed to see the opportunity taking on the unions offers them to raise their political profiles, as it has clearly done for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). 
Gov. Walker, however, seems focused on another GOP icon. During that prank phone call last month he said one of the defining moments in the political career of Ronald Reagan was when he fired the air traffic controllers. 
"That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall in the fall of Communism because from that point forward the Soviets and the Communists knew that Ronald Reagan wasn't a pushover," he said. 
Democrats say they're not pushovers either. 
"People aren't happy, but it's got them fired up," said Fraioli, the Democratic strategist. "It's almost like they needed something like this to get their chins up off the ground after the 2010 election." 
But Fraioli concedes they are definitely on the defensive. 
"We're not working for jobs, or trying to advance things," he said. "We're just trying to hang on to what we've got." 

- Compiled by KOREY CLARK

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