Public-sector workers are under fire again — and not just from Republicans.
Three years after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker curtailed collective bargaining and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cut pension benefits for public employees in the name of budget austerity, state and local politicians once again are moving to curtail public-sector unions.
The most aggressive moves are coming from Illinois’ newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. On Monday, Rauner issued an executive order prohibiting unions from collecting so-called fair share fees from non-union members. These mandatory fees come from government workers who choose not to be union members but are nonetheless represented by unions in contract negotiations. In effect, Rauner’s order by fiat makes Illinois a right-to-work state for public employees — a measure that, opponents argue, requires legislation.
But some Democrats have lately put public-employee unions in the hot seat too. For Democrats, the target is typically teachers unions, whose frequent opposition to education reforms has proved infuriating to big-city mayors.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has spoken of removing “ineffective teachers” and expanding charter schools, prompting the New York State United Teachers to launch a media campaign to “fight back” against the governor’s agenda. “Education is our life. For this you have made us the enemy. This is personal,” a group of teachers said in an open letter to Cuomo printed Monday in the Times Union of Albany.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a Economic Club of Detroit meeting in Detroit Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. The Detroit event is the first in a series of stops that Bush’s team is calling his ‘Right to Rise’ tour. That’s also the name of the political action committee he formed in December 2014 to allow him to explore a presidential run.
The Chicago Teachers Union has lofted similar rhetoric against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat. CTU President Karen Lewis even considered challenging Emanuel in the current mayoral election, though eventually she dropped out, citing health reasons.
Emanuel and Rauner, it happens, are friends and former business associates from Emanuel’s time at the investment firm Wasserstein Perella in the late 1990s. Although Emanuel endorsed Rauner’s opponent, incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, in November’s election, and though the two disagree on many issues, Emanuel and Rauner are, one Democratic strategist told the Chicago Tribune in August, “cut from the same cloth.” One point of agreement is a keen frustration with the CTU.
In addition to differences over education reform, Democratic politicians have sometimes clashed with public-employee unions over pensions that are squeezing state budgets. Here, too, Illinois features prominently, because nowhere does the state pension problem weigh more heavily. The state’s Democratic attorney general, Lisa Madigan, is arguing in court for emergency powers to trim state pension benefits.
“As expenditures on benefits increase,” writes Daniel DiSalvo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative nonprofit, in his 2015 book “Public Union Power and Its Consequences,” these expenditures “‘crowd out’ government spending on parks, education, public safety and other services on which the poor and middle class rely. In short, government costs more but does less.” Such pressures are felt by Republicans and Democrats alike — indeed, so much so that some Democrats now openly pronounce themselves anti-union. In his book, DiSalvo quotes San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat who’s clashed with public-employee unions, saying, “There’s a difference between being liberal and progressive and being a union Democrat.”
Mostly, though, recent challenges to public employees have come from Republicans. Walker, who halted fair share fees in Wisconsin through legislation, thus far has resisted pressure from Republican legislators to extend right-to-work to private employees. But in defending his proposed $300 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin, Walker recently suggested that the faculty “start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work.” Newly elected GOP Wisconsin state Treasurer Matt Adamczyk, not to be outdone, fired his entire staff after assuming office and has pledged to shut the office down entirely.
Right-to-work bills introduced in New Mexico, Missouri and West Virginia would prohibit public and/or private unions from collecting mandatory dues or their equivalent in workplaces that they’ve organized. The bills have already cleared committee hurdles in New Mexico and Missouri. All but the Missouri bill were introduced by Republicans; in Missouri, the measure was introduced by state Rep. Courtney Curtis, a Democrat and an African-American who would limit right to work to the construction industry to combat what he sees as bias in minority contracting. In Kentucky, right-to-work ordinances have been passed in five counties, though it isn’t clear federal law allows the adoption of right to work anywhere except at the state and territorial level.
Legal challenges are already underway.
Renewed strafing of the public-sector workforce is primarily the result of November’s Republican sweep, in which the GOP seized the governorships of Massachusetts, Maryland, Arkansas and Illinois, all previously Democratic, while losing only Pennsylvania, for a net gain of two. (Alaska’s newly elected governor is independent Bill Walker, who ousted Republican Sean Parnell.)
The GOP also acquired control of 11 previously Democratic legislative chambers, including the West Virginia House, the New York Senate and the Nevada Assembly and Senate. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans haven’t controlled this many state legislative seats since 1920.
The GOP has a clear political incentive to curb public-union power. Public-sector workers have a rate of union membership of 35.7 percent, five times higher than that of the private workforce. And unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are big donors to Democrats. AFSCME spent $32 million on political activities and lobbying in 2013, the most recent year for which data are available.
For decades, public-sector unions grew even as private-sector union membership shrank to less than 7 percent of the national workforce. But over the past decade, AFSCME’s membership remained essentially flat, according to the Center for Union Facts, an anti-union group that collects statistics on labor organizations. Today membership is about 1.4 million.
Rauner (whom CTU’s Lewis recently called “Scott Walker on steroids”) has emerged lately as the most aggressive adversary to public-sector unions. At the same time Rauner signed his executive order against fair share fees, he filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago asking a court to approve his order. “Forced union dues are a critical cog in the corrupt bargain that is crushing taxpayers,” Rauner said. “An employee who is forced to pay unfair share dues is being forced to fund political activity with which they disagree. That is a clear violation of First Amendment rights — and something that, as governor, I am duty bound to correct.”
“It is crystal clear by this action,” answered Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Local 31, “that the governor’s supposed concern for balancing the state budget is a paper-thin excuse that can’t hide his real agenda: silencing working people and their unions who stand up for the middle class.” Local 31 represents about 35,000 state employees, the majority of whom are members, the union said.
It’s possible the executive order is intended less as a policy shift than as a bargaining chip. Rauner’s executive order comes five months before Local 31’s contract with the state is due to expire. The union has not entered into serious negotiations on the contract and has made only made preliminary contacts with Rauner’s staff.
But it’s also possible Rauner aims to deal a knockout blow to the mandatory collection of public-employee union dues or their equivalent nationwide.
Rauner’s lawsuit cites a U.S. Supreme Court opinion issued last summer, Harris v. Quinn, which prevented public unions from collecting fees from a small group of private-sector workers under contract with state governments. The court could have gone further to declare mandatory public-sector union fees unconstitutional, but it chose not to. Rauner’s suit appears designed to compel the Supreme Court to take a second look, and the court may be willing. And it may soon take up another case challenging mandatory teacher-union fees in California.
Public-employee unions can mostly be expected to campaign against next year’s GOP primary field, and especially against Walker and Christie. One possible exception is the conservative International Association of Fire Fighters, whose president, Harold Schaitberger, met with Jeb Bush last month. Schaitberger said his 300,000-strong union is about 44 percent Republican. While Schaitberger had few nice things to say about Christie, who forced cuts to firefighter pensions in New Jersey, he had warm words for Bush.
“Even though Jeb was trying to trim down government in Florida — he reduced overall government employment,” Schaitberger told POLITICO, he “was friendly to firefighters.”