The 2011 right wing war on workers: How is the Workers’ Rights are Human Rights fightback movement faring?
As the smoke begins to clear from this spring’s nationwide legislative sneak attack against the labor movement, it’s time to take stock. Where and how did the conservatives attack us, where did we take losses, and where did we live to fight another day?
What unfolded this spring in the U.S., beginning in Wisconsin, was a secretly planned, carefully coordinated attack on the fundamental human right to freedom of association and collective bargaining of workers in the United States. The extreme right, empowered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United (giving corporations the right to unlimited spending in the political arena) decision and the resulting billionaire-funded tea party movement, captured the lions’ share of state legislatures and Governor’s mansions in the November 2010 mid-term elections. Perceiving the labor movement as terminally weak, they boldly launched all-out war. The numbers speak for themselves.
As of May 27, the enemies of labor had initiated direct legislative assaults on public sector workers in 39 states, not including states in which Governors made concessionary bargaining demands (which adds up to almost every state). Conservatives launched legislative attacks on public sector collective bargaining (ranging from outright bans to various forms of limits) in at least 23 states (AK, CO, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, ME, MI, MN, NE, NH, NM, NJ, NV, OH, OK, OR, PA, SC, TN, WA, WI). They went after public employee pensions in 21 states (AL, AZ, CA, CO, DE, FL, HI, IA, IL, KS, KY, ME, MI, MN, MT, NH, NJ, NY, OH, OK, VA). They pushed so-called “Right to Work” (without a union) laws in 19 states (AK, HI, IA, IN, MO, ME, MI, MN, MT, MO, NH, NM, OK, PA, RI, TN, VA, WA, WV). They pushed Paycheck Deception laws to ban or restrict union political activity in 17 states (AL, AZ, FL, HI, ID, IN, KS, MI, MN, MO, MS, NJ, OR, SD, TN, TX, WY). They tried to privatize public sector workforces in 16 states, including 3 states (Pennsylvania, Texas and Illinois) where they sought to privatize public transportation and 3 states where they pushed private school voucher bills (AZ, CO, FL, HI, IA, IL, IN, ME, MI, MN, MT, OH, PA, TX, WA, WI).
Union-haters tried to enact bans on voluntary card check recognition of unions in 9 states (AL, CA, IA, IN, MO, NH, SC, TX, VA). They sought to eliminate or restrict teacher tenure and/or due process in 8 states: (FL, MI, MN, MO, NH, OK, TN, WY). They tried to bypass negotiation and impose wage and salary cuts or freezes by legislative fiat in 7 states (AZ, ID, KS, MI, MN, MO, WA).
The total increases to 41 states when you broaden the lens to include mean-spirited attacks on people who are hurting economically (restrictions on unemployment benefits) and voter suppression laws intended to keep Democratic-leaning voters from exercising the franchise. Republican-controlled legislatures pushed voter suppression bills in 19 states (CO, GA, HI, IA, KS, MA, ME, MN, MO, MT, NH, NM, NV, NY, OH, PA, TN, TX, VA) and restrictions on unemployment in 8 states (ME, FL, IL, IN, MI, IA, MO, OK).
Most of the voter suppression measures impose requirements for photo identification at the polls, reduce the number of days of early voting, and/or tighten registration rules. These rules disproportionately impact people of color, students, poor people, and immigrants, all of whom tend to vote Democratic. There is little to no evidence of widespread voter fraud, the issue Republicans cite to justify these voter suppression measures. As pointed out in the article elsewhere in this issue, “the unified Republican push for photo identification cards carries echoes of the Jim Crow laws — with their poll taxes and literacy tests — that inhibited black voters in the South from Reconstruction through the 1960s.”
When you add to the list the states where conservatives pushed bills to harm immigrants and immigrant workers, the total jumps to 44. Bills to criminalize or penalize immigrants, a historic tactic of the right during an economic crisis, were introduced in 28 states (AR, AZ, CA, CO, DE, FL, GA, HI, IA, IL, IN, KY, MI, MN, MS, MT, NC, NE, NH, NM, OK, SC, SD, TX, VT, VA, WA, WY)
However, when you take a look at which of these bills actually passed and were signed into law, the numbers are significantly lower. While most proposed legislation doesn’t make it into law in any season, we can take a small measure of satisfaction in knowing we beat back many of these attacks. The data seem to indicate that, despite the fact that we were not prepared for the assault, and that some unions were simply not willing or able to mobilize their members on the scale that was necessary, when (and only when) we do mobilize on the necessary scale, we have the ability to defend ourselves. However, as you read these numbers, keep in mind that legislatures are still in session in some of the more conservative states, so there are probably be more losses coming. Even more important, remember that this was just the first round. The right has launched all out war. We must fight back with every resource at our disposal.
Attacks on public sector collective bargaining were signed into law in 6 states: ID (teachers), IN (teachers), MI (emergency financial managers have power to impose contract), OH, OK, WI. However, in Wisconsin, Dane County Judge Sumi has issued a permanent injunction against the law, which was passed in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law (see story elsewhere in this issue), and in Ohio workers and their allies are collecting signatures to place a “citizen’s Veto” of the anti-collective bargaining law on the ballot in November. Six states eliminated or restricted teacher tenure, collective bargaining and/or due process protections (AL, FL, ID, IN, OK, TN)
Limits on public workers’ pensions were passed in 3 states: AZ, FL, OK (kicks release time teachers out of retirement system). A so-called “Right to Work” (without a union) law was passed in New Hampshire, but it was vetoed by the Democratic Governor. While the Republicans say they have the votes to override the veto, they keep postponing the vote, indicating they are having trouble lining up the votes. In Tennessee, which is already a “Right to Work” (without a union) state, the Governor signed a law outlawing contract provisions that require people who are members of the union to maintain their membership while they are covered by the collective bargaining agreement. One state, Arizona, passed a Paycheck Deception law severely curtailing union political activities. Privatization/voucher laws were passed on four states. (IA, OH, TX, WI) One state referred a measure to the November ballot that would outlaw card check union recognition.
Voter suppression laws were passed in 6 states (see article elsewhere in this issue): FL, GA (sent to Governor for signature 4/21), KS, MO, TN (sent to Governor for signature 5/23), WI. Restrictions on unemployment benefits passed in 2 states (MI, FL), as did immigration restrictions (GA, UT).
We wish we could report to you on a similar number of positive state legislative accomplishments. Before we can do that, we will need a nationwide power shift in favor of a more progressive, civic-minded public agenda. That should be the single-minded focus of every TWU member for the foreseeable future. In the timeless words attributed to Ben Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”