GOP plans new assault on unions

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Republicans in crucial states across the country are planning a renewed assault on the political power of labor unions after GOP victories in November’s elections handed the party control of states where Democrats have long defended union rights.

Labor unions have been on the defense in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina in recent years, after Republicans swept to power in the 2010 midterm elections. Republicans in those states have advanced measures limiting public employee unions’ collective bargaining rights and unions’ power to compel workers to contribute dues.

{mosads}Democrats have held firm in states such as New Hampshire, Missouri, Kentucky and Iowa, where the party maintained enough of a toehold to block anti-union measures. But November’s elections gave Republicans big wins in those states, paving the way for an aggressive new campaign to undermine Democrats’ once-powerful labor allies.

“Labor had a disastrous election in the Rust Belt,” said Jake Bookwalter, who lobbies state governments at Stateside Associates.

Republican leaders in New Hampshire, Missouri and Kentucky are planning in the coming months to take up and pass so-called right-to-work measures, allowing workers to opt out of joining a union and out of paying union dues. 

Twenty-six states currently have right-to-work laws on the books, and governors-elect in both Missouri and New Hampshire campaigned on pledges to implement those laws in their states.

Those new governors-to-be, along with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), have hinted that they plan to reform collective bargaining laws as well, similar to a push made by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) five years ago.

“Voters reward elected officials that champion free-market labor reforms,” said Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the center-right Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Republicans in Missouri have already filed legislation addressing collective bargaining agreements between the state and public employee unions. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) has vetoed anti-union legislation in the past. But come next year, Nixon, who faced term limits, will be replaced by Gov.-elect Eric Greitens (R).

“Leadership is preparing for a battle,” said outgoing state Rep. Lincoln Hough (R). “The House and the Senate both have GOP supermajorities, so it’s not a matter of if, but when.”

Republicans in Iowa, led by Branstad, are considering stripping unions of the right to bargain over employee health insurance. The GOP captured control of the state Senate in November’s elections, giving the party total control of state government.

“Every little piece of good working-place policy that we’ve put in place over the last 20 years, I expect Republicans to begin picking away at,” said Iowa state Rep. Marti Anderson (D). “I expect to have bargaining units be decimated.”

Kentucky, where Republicans captured control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a century, is likely to revisit prevailing wage laws, which require state government contractors to pay higher wages on public construction projects.

“What we want to do as a caucus and what we want to do as a Republican House is to change the landscape in Kentucky for business,” said state Rep. Jonathan Shell (R), a member of House GOP leadership. “Our look forward as a leadership team and as a caucus is going to be on trying to make Kentucky one of the premier centers for business in the United States.”

In targeted states, Democrats have pledged to fight back, using both legislative and political means. 

“The Democrat caucus will be working with our friends in labor to message,” said Joni Jenkins, a Democratic state representative in Kentucky. “If they’re going to take a vote, we’re going to hold them accountable for it.”

States that had Republican majorities even before November’s elections are planning new pushes to curb union rights. 

In Texas, legislators may consider a bill requiring parental consent before a minor joins a union. Michigan legislators working in a special session are trying to pass a measure strengthening its right-to-work laws.

Labor allies are planning their own pushes in states where they hold control. Bookwalter said he expects Democratic-led states like California to push new prevailing wage laws and to increase the minimum wage. Other groups are likely to push to raise the minimum wage through ballot measures in states such as Texas, New Jersey, Missouri and Florida in coming years.

The threat to labor unions and their political power comes after decades of a gradual but steep decline in union membership. 

At the same time, union households, once a pillar of the Democratic coalition, are an increasingly inviting target for Republican candidates looking for new votes. In 2008, President Obama won 59 percent of the vote among union households, according to exit polls. In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won just 51 percent of those votes.

At the state level, many districts Republicans won in 2016 were driven by votes from working-class people, precisely those most likely to be members of a union.

“Many of the areas where [Republicans] beat incumbents are in working-class districts,” Jenkins said. “A lot of our middle-class voters wanted change because they wanted change, and it’s not getting any better.”

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