After the elections held earlier this month, Republicans will be in control of 23 state governments. That is likely to bode very poorly for labor unions, especially those operating in the public sector, which have become a target of conservative state lawmakers in the past few years. In the wake of the Great Recession, state legislators introduced hundreds of bills to curtail the right of public-sector unions to collectively bargain and participate in politics, and Republican governors succeeded in scaling back the organizing ability of public workers in several states. These conservative advances are significant because the public sector remains one of the last strongholds of union strength in the United States.
Despite the recent victories that conservatives have enjoyed against public unions, it would be a mistake to assume that this is a new offensive by the right. As I show in my research, the conservative movement has long targeted public-sector labor unions. Indeed, it was fear of a rapidly growing public-sector labor movement in the 1970s and 1980s that motivated some conservative leaders to invest in developing new organizations that could match the power and influence that public unions – especially those representing public school teachers – were perceived as having in state politics.
There is a broader lesson from this example that is instructive for understanding the dynamics of civic participation. Successful political movements, whether on the left or the right, require long-term investments in organizations that can develop and promote policy ideas over many decades. Moreover, such movements must continue to operate in between election cycles, and change the structure of government policy in durable ways that benefit a movement’s allies and disadvantage its opponents.
One group that exemplifies such strategies is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a group of state legislators and companies that drafts and promotes conservative, pro-business model legislation across the states. ALEC is one group that was formed as a response to the rise of public union strength in the states in the 1970s. As one of ALEC’s early leaders warned fellow conservatives, “liberals understood the importance of the states some time ago … liberal state legislators are supported by a vast array of special interest groups … and the group that is gaining … at the fastest rate is … the radically liberal National Education Association.” ALEC was thus formed to offer an infrastructure that could change state policy over time, regardless of the results of any one given election. It continues to operate today with great success. The group can claim a membership of several thousand legislators (or about a fourth of all state lawmakers), as well as several hundred private-sector members, including many Fortune 500 companies. (In an earlier Monkey Cage post and academic paper, I explored the states where ALEC has been most successful at enacting its policy ideas.)
Many of the bills promoted by ALEC have taken aim at public-sector unions, which represent both an important political adversary of the group’s conservative leaders, as well as an economic opponent to many of the group’s corporate members. An ongoing component of my dissertation examines whether these bills promoted by ALEC’s members across the states have in fact succeeded in weakening public sector
Building on research I am conducting with Konstantin Kashin, I used text analysis of ALEC’s model legislation, along with all state legislation introduced and enacted since the mid-1990s, to identify instances when state governments enacted ALEC-authored bills related to public unions. (In all, I counted twelve enactments of ALEC reform bills across eight states.) These bills generally followed several common patterns, such as provisions making it more challenging for labor unions to automatically collect dues from workers, and making it easier for states to contract out services that were previously performed by public workers. Importantly, not all of the bills were enacted in the wake of the Great Recession; a number were signed into law a decade earlier.
Next, I estimated the effect that the enactment of these bills had on public-sector union density, and found that the success of ALEC-derived labor bills resulted in lower public union density beginning three to four years after those bills became law. On average, state public-sector union density fell by about three percentage points per year, or nearly 10 percent of the current level of public-sector union density in the country as a whole. My results were similar even when I looked at variation within, rather than across, different states, and when I accounted for partisan control of government, existing private-sector union density, and secular trends in public union density within each state.
These results suggest that state business lobbies like ALEC have indeed achieved one of their founding goals established some four decades ago. There is a deep historical irony to this reversal of fortune: ALEC was initially concerned with the fact that liberals were dominating state politics, yet now it is progressives who are lamenting the fact that they lack any counterweight to ALEC in the states (and have only recently announced the creation of a group that might plausibly serve as a foil to state business lobbies). ALEC has succeeded in no small part because of its ability to play the long game, changing state policy in durable ways that benefit its members while hampering its rivals. Whether liberals will learn this lesson remains to be seen.
Alex Hertel-Fernandez is a PhD student at Harvard University in government and social policy.
This post is part of the Scholars Strategy Network series on civic engagement between elections.