States, Congress ready assault on labor

Zachary Roth
Senior National Affairs Reporter
The Lookout

2011 could be a challenging year for labor unions and their members.

Facing daunting spending gaps, many states are looking to limit labor's political and bargaining power, the New York Times reports. The news comes just as Washington Republicans gear up for their own "war" against public-sector unions.

Perhaps the most aggressive attack on unions is being launched in Ohio, where the new Republican governor, John Kasich, is looking to take away the right of state-financed child-care and home-care workers to unionize, and to ban strikes by public-school teachers.

"If they want to strike, they should be fired," Kasich has said. "They've got good jobs, they've got high pay, they get good benefits, a great retirement. What are they striking for?"

Meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, also a Republican, is threatening to take away the right of government workers to form unions and bargain for contracts.

And GOP lawmakers in Maine, Indiana, Missouri, and seven other states are pushing laws that would make it harder for unions to raise money by barring public-sector unions from forcing workers they represent to pay dues or fees.

Some see all these moves as a long-term threat to the viability of unions. "In the long run, if these measures deprive unions of resources, it will cut them off at their knees," Charles E. Wilson, a law professor at Ohio State University, told the Times. "They'll melt away."

Even states with new Democratic leaders are looking to pare back union benefits. Gov. Jerry Brown of California has said he'll review the benefits that government workers in the state receive, as he seeks ways to close a massive budget shortfall. And New York governor Andrew Cuomo is  likely to call for a one-year salary freeze for state workers, as Albany struggles with its own deficit.

All this comes as the newly ascendant Congressional GOP launches its own anti-union campaign, as Slate recently reported.

One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, last month introduced a bill that would change the way public employee pension plans report their finances. The bill's supporters believe the change would show that the plans are in a more perilous state than labor leaders have let on.

Another Republican congressman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, has said he'll push a bill that would prevent the federal government from bailing states out. That would increase the pressure on states to tighten their belts -- likely by targeting workers' benefits.

Meanwhile, GOP wise man Newt Gingrich has been talking up the idea of a bill that creates a venue for state bankruptcies. That, too, would force cash-strapped states to pare down their benefits packages before a bankruptcy judge did it for them.

Suddenly, the days when labor leaders pressed for their own legislative wish list seems like a long time ago.

(Photo: AP/Seth Perlman)