Prepping for battle, union leaders say GOP 'trying to take us down'

The labor movement is marshaling support for what it expects to be a nationwide fight over the collective bargaining rights of public workers. 

While demonstrators in Wisconsin have grabbed national headlines in their dispute with Gov. Scott Walker (R), showdowns with unions are also brewing in other state capitals dealing with budget shortfalls. 

Union leaders say the fight raging in Wisconsin is likely to play out across several states this year. 

“This is all happening in a very coordinated way to kill off our unions and to deny workers the opportunity to have some say in their careers,” President Harold A. Schaitberger of the International Association of Fire Fighters told The Hill. “They are trying to take us down.”

Labor groups are chafing at proposed state legislation and ballot initiatives they say would tamp down on union rights.

In Indiana, for example, members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) will be at the Indianapolis statehouse this week protesting “right to work” legislation that could cut back on union dues and other measures that target prevailing wage laws.

In Ohio, meanwhile, AFL-CIO members crowded into the Columbus statehouse Tuesday as state lawmakers held a hearing on a bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from public workers.

Labor officials said they are monitoring similar legislation and ballot initiatives on the docket across the country, in states like Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Those Rust Belt and Northeastern states have historically been the bulwarks of the labor movement.

But with huge gains by Republicans not just in Congress but also in statehouses across the country, unions are finding themselves on the defensive. New, emboldened Republican governors, like Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich, say public employee unions need to make concessions to help ease budget shortfalls. 

Union leaders, however, say Republicans are using the cover of fiscal crisis to tamp down on labor rights due to unions’ traditional political support for Democrats.

Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the statehouse attacks “payback” for business interests’ support of Republicans last election.

“This isn’t about balancing the budget,” Trumka said of Walker’s actions in Wisconsin. “This is about making political choices. This is about hurting workers. This is about taking away their rights.”

More than a month ago, in a speech at the National Press Club, the labor leader said business interests would target labor rights, saying, “November’s election has unleashed a coordinated effort” to attack workers’ rights. 

“When I say an attack on workers’ rights, I am not talking about demands for concessions in tough times by employers. Wise or not, such demands are a normal part of collective bargaining,” Trumka said. “I am talking about the campaigns in state after state, funded by shadowy committees created in the wake of [the] Citizens United [Supreme Court ruling], aimed at depriving all workers — public- and private-sector — of the basic human right to form strong unions and bargain collectively to lift their lives.”

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Mary Kay Henry agreed, saying it appeared that the legislation in several states appears to be “coordinated.”

“These attacks are happening across the country,” Henry said. “These attacks are not just on people who want to have a voice in their workplace. These are attacks on the middle class.”

SEIU leaders held a conference call with staff around the country last week to rally around union members in Wisconsin. 

Earlier this month, LIUNA President Terry O’Sullivan led a conference call with thousands of his union members in seven different states to discuss how to push back against anti-union legislation.

Union officials are also organizing solidarity events in more than two dozen states this week to stand with workers in Wisconsin. 

Kim Anderson, director of government relations for the National Education Association, called the standoff in Wisconsin “a seminal moment” for the middle class and workers.

“We are there for our members,” Anderson said. “That’s what unions do. We unite. And we do that not just for our members, but for the middle class.”