Opinion

The Great Debate

Pennsylvania as the new Wisconsin in union fights

The Wisconsin state capitol was the site of massive protests in 2011 during the fight to pass Republican Governor Scott Walker’s labor reforms. The following year Big Labor staged demonstrations in Michigan against Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s right-to-work bill, which ultimately passed. Now Pennsylvania’s state capitol is set to reach fever pitch, as unions plan to bus in hundreds of protestors this week to fight legislation that, if bad for union bosses, could be a boon to rank-and-file workers.

Pennsylvania is a longtime labor stronghold. Consider that a plaque directly across from the state capitol commemorates the unionization of government workers. But Pennsylvania lawmakers are now poised to pass a law to end automatic deduction of union dues from government employee paychecks.

The “paycheck protection” bills pending in state Senate and House of Representatives committees, propose to prohibit government employers from deducting from a public employee’s salary “any funds which inure to the benefit of a private organization.”

If enacted, this legislation would end this use of state resources for political activity. Currently, the state uses taxpayer resources to collect union dues from government workers and these funds are used for political purposes by union lobbyists and political action committees. Police, firefighter and prison guard unions, however, are not covered by the bill.

For state Representative Bryan Cutler (R), sponsor of the House bill, it comes down to whether union political dues collection is an appropriate state government function. “The entire bill is about one fundamental question,” said Cutler. “Should government be in the business of collecting political money?”

North Carolina as the new Wisconsin

North Carolina, a state traditionally associated with Southern hospitality, college basketball and barbeque, is bucking its genteel reputation this summer as state politics reach fever pitch.

“Nowhere is the battle between liberal and conservative visions of government fiercer,” wrote David Graham of The Atlantic, “than North Carolina.” NBC Political Director Chuck Todd cited Graham’s piece as “a good argument that the best — and most important — political story that no one has probably heard about is taking place in North Carolina.”

Since April, Democrats and liberal groups upset with the state Republicans’ conservative legislation have gathered every Monday at the capitol in Raleigh — with more than 600 demonstrators arrested so far. A state Senate bill passed last week designed to increase health and safety standards at women’s reproductive rights facilities added fuel to the fire. Public protests escalated and the state garnered even more national media attention.

Why do unions seek exemption from anti-stalking laws?

Valentine’s Day is a time when couples go out for romantic dinners and exchange gifts, while singles meet up in bars, hoping to make some bad decisions. Valentine’s Day is also a day when people with crazy ex-boyfriends or -girlfriends are reminded of how thankful they are for anti-stalking laws.

Every state has made stalking a crime. These laws help protect people who might otherwise live in fear. Yet labor unions have successfully, and disconcertingly, lobbied to be exempt from anti-stalking laws in at least four states – California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Nevada.

“The most glaring examples of union favoritism under state laws,” notes a 2012 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, “tend to occur in criminal statutes and allow individuals who engage in truly objectionable behavior to avoid prosecution solely because they are participating in some form of labor activity.”

The right-to-work coup in Michigan

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s decision to sign a right-to-work law is just the latest battle in Midwestern Republican legislators’ convulsive campaign to eviscerate union political clout. Lansing, Michigan, now follows Madison, Wisconsin, Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana, as a state capital flooded by union partisans — in a spirited, but vain, effort to forestall these laws.

Unions stand at the core of the Democratic coalition today. They are the last organizations remaining on the liberal side that can effectively appeal to white, working-class men in the Rust Belt swing states. They were crucial to President Barack Obama’s victory there.

So whatever the opposition and the shady legislative tactics, Snyder, his billionaire backers and the rest of the Michigan GOP made the cold political calculation: Break unions’ political power now by stripping them of the ability to raise the funds needed to hire staff, mobilize voters and keep up liberal pressure on state and local officials in the months after the election. Even as Citizens United allows many conservatives to raise unlimited funds, Democratic Party prospects are likely to plummet — turning Michigan as steadily red as Texas.

What public unions and gay marriage have in common

The political fireworks in Wisconsin, culminating in the recent unsuccessful recall election of the Republican governor, Scott Walker, have a lot of people saying good riddance to public-sector unions. Last year, Walker and the Wisconsin state legislature enacted Wisconsin Act 10, stripping most – though crucially not all – of the state’s public unions of their most fundamental powers, including collective bargaining and the ability to deduct dues from workers’ paychecks. Many observers – and not only Republicans – have signaled their approval, arguing that public unions – representing teachers, bus drivers, healthcare workers – shouldn’t exist in the first place.

“Public sector unions have reached their high water mark,” a Forbes columnist cheered last week. “Let the cleanup begin as the red ink recedes.”

It turns out, however, that killing off public-sector unions is a lot harder than most people imagine. And, curiously, the reason is related to recent court decisions about gay marriage. Late last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. The principle is equal protection under the law: If you allow same-sex couples to marry – as eight states and the District of Columbia now do – you can’t economically discriminate against them (by denying the ability to file joint tax returns or withholding Social Security benefits) simply because they are not heterosexual.

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