Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

What’s At Stake This November

We all know that “elections have consequences,” but that isn’t always the case for labor law issues.

There are some elections that are, by their nature, more direct in their labor law influence: Oregonians elect their state’s labor commissioner, for example (and some aren’t happy about it).

But even federal elections are poor indicators of whether or not labor bosses will make gains. It’s hard for unions to get bad legislation passed even when labor-supported Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House. The president, meanwhile, holds the power to appoint members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in standard, recess, or unconstitutional ways. But even that power is tempered by the length of member terms (assuming members don’t unexpectedly resign).

So leave it to states — specifically, state voters–to step up to the plate and take on the labor issues of the day. There’s plenty at stake this year in the form of state ballot measures, and the results will set the tone for the next few years.

Each measure is a test with several parts.First, it determines how effective organized labor is in messaging, mobilizing, and getting out the vote. Labor has been strengthened by Citizens United and can still rely on its powerful influence on members (influence obtained, ironically, by using members’ dues money).

Second, many measures — most notably Michigan’s Proposal 2 — are important test cases for unions to learn how palatable their ideas are. After millions of dollars are spent and thousands of hours of ads are aired in support of the attempted union power grab in Michigan — a traditional labor stronghold — the results will be a factor in deciding whether to run future offensives.

Labor’s boldest gambit is in Michigan, where it has thrown its weight around to defeat one proposal and support two others.  If things go labor’s way, it would set back sensible reforms in the state.

Proposal 1 would keep the emergency manager law in place. This law allows special managers to fix municipalities that are in dire financial straits, giving them full power to balance the books, which might include breaking union contracts.

Proposal 2 is a big overreach by unions to give themselves unquestioned authority at the bargaining table. The proposal enshrines collective bargaining into the state constitution for government-employee unions, but it goes further—no state law can hinder the enforcement of a negotiated contract. That includes bizarre teacher disciplinary rules. Michigan’s Attorney General has said that Proposal 2 would overturn, in whole or in part, 170 laws already on the books. If both Proposal 1 and Proposal 2 passed, the latter would effectively cancel out the former.

Proposal 4 is a made-for-SEIU initiative which would allow statewide unionization of home health care workers—including family members caring for others. As the Mackinac Center explains, the proposal would “allow $6 million of Medicaid money to continue to flow as so-called ‘union dues’ and ‘agency fees’ to the Service Employees International Union each year.”

In Alabama, voters will be consider Amendment 7, which states that secret ballots are a fundamental right of all Alabama citizens — meaning that the right extends to employee representation matters. This is an attempt to create a state-level fix for labor’s attempt to end secret ballot votes in union elections with the use of card check.  Other states have passed similar laws, while Illinois changed its laws to allow charter school teachers to unionize with card check. The former have been challenged by the NLRB in federal court in Arizona, but a district judge there allowed the law to stand. Proponents say this is necessary to protect employees from the results of the NLRB’s Lamons Gasket case, while those who oppose the amendment,like the AFL-CIO, say that it’s a corporate ploy to fix a nonexistent problem.

California’s Proposition 32 is another major fight, with both sides throwing in large sums of cash to convince voters. Also known as the “Paycheck Protection” proposition, the measure would order the state to stop automatically deducting union dues from government employees and instead give employees the opportunity to “opt-in” to supporting the political causes of their union bosses. For years, the practice of automatic deductions has given political power to public sector unions that has hurt California taxpayers. Not surprisingly, labor unions have contributed a good amount of that money into the cause: of the top ten contributors to the “Vote No” campaign, unions occupy nine spots. Those nine groups alone have given almost $54 million of the $68.8 million (78 percent) raised so far. Polling shows that their efforts could be successful, even though a nationwide survey suggests that a vast majority of people—around 80 percent of union and non-union households — think that paycheck protection is necessary.

Although not directly related to labor unions, Governor Jerry Brown was hoping to get union support on Proposition 30, his tax plan. And labor has delivered: Of the $61.8 million raised in favor of Brown’s plan (as of October 25), the top three donors are:

  1. California Teachers’ Association – $10,435,01
  2. SEIU – $9,886,470
  3. AFT – $4,170,900

That adds up to nearly 40 percent of the total.

Idaho, South Dakota, and Washington are considering education-related ballot measures that would affect teachers unions.

Idaho lawmakers approved the “Students Come First” laws, but now they come before Idaho voters as Propositions 1 and 2, also known as the Idaho Teachers’ Collective Bargaining Veto Referendums, and as Proposition 3. Proposition 1 would limit the scope of collective bargaining by Idaho teachers, allowing them to only negotiate for salary and benefits and would require that unions accept the school district’s final offer if an agreement cannot be reached. It also phases out tenure and requires open negotiations. Proposition 2 would implement pay-for-performance for teachers based on student achievement and the subjects taught by the teacher. Proposition 3 would mandate more technology spending by school districts. Teachers unions in Idaho are staunchly opposed to all three.

In South Dakota, citizens will also be voting on a veto referendum, Referred Law 16brought by the South Dakota Education Association that would block a law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor that gives merit pay to top teachers, phases out tenure, and offers bonuses to math and science teachers. The latter idea has been supported by President Obama in the form of STEM grantsPolls are close, with voters siding with the unions by 6 points. But when even Newark teachers are accepting the reality of merit bonuses, a vote reversing the reforms here or in Idaho might not matter.

Initiative 1240 in Washington would permit 40 charter schools to open in the state over the next five years.Bill Gates and others are backing the proposal to make Washington the 42nd state to allow charter schools. The state has a history of rejecting these proposals, but an October 5 poll gives the initiative just under 50 percent support.

Finally, organized labor has come out in force in Illinois in order to oppose an amendment to the state pension plan. The amendment is simple—any increases to the pensions of government employees must be approved by a three-fifths vote of the state’s General Assembly. The tactic is so prevalent that Springfield has a name for it: “pension sweeteners.” This doesn’t help stop the bleeding from the $80 billion that the state already owes to the pension fund, but it is meant to slow down the growth of the shortfall.

The Illinois measure is representative of much of labor’s goals in 2012, as it clearly shows that labor unions will continue to push the envelope even in the face of the devastating (to them) reality of tighter budgets and taxpayers who have come to expect fiscal responsibility.

Categories: Center for Union FactsEnding Secret BallotsLegalPolitical MoneyTeachers Unions