From Union-Busting to Myth-Busting
Organized labor’s recent struggle for existence should debunk the longstanding myth that unions and corporations exercise an equal amount of political influence in exchange for their hefty campaign contributions. That misconception seemed to flourish in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision abolishing restrictions on the amount that businesses and unions can donate to electoral campaigns.
According to this lore, Democrats are as beholden to the unions that fund them as Republicans are to the corporations that bankroll their campaigns. But the concerted assault on union workers by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey and elsewhere demonstrates a critical difference between the two parties and their fealty to donors: Republicans are aggressive in rewarding their corporate sponsors with pro-business legislative favors. Democratic support for the unions is limited to playing defense.
This discrepancy can be seen in the way the debate has been defined in Wisconsin. Without minimizing the genuinely admirable stance Wisconsin Democrats have taken, it’s important to remember that they drew their line in the sand after there was virtually no more room for the unions to give. Fanatical Republicans, fueled by money from rabidly anti-labor business magnates, swiftly introduced a bill that would obliterate public-sector unions and topple one of the few institutions left to slow the surging tide of income inequality in this country. The unions, which represent workers earning strictly middle-of-the-road wages, promptly already agreed to wage and benefit concessions, even though Wisconsin’s governor hasn’t asked the wealthy residents to forgo tax cuts and contribute their fair share to the Dairy State’s budget morass.
Still, few Democrats publicly raised much of a fuss until Republicans decided they’d settle for nothing less than the union’s extinction. Their move to block the legislation is surely virtuous. But while the Democrats stiffened to keep the unions alive; they’ve done little to stop them from taking a beating. In the war between the surrogates for Big Business and unions, the Republicans are inflicting casualties; the Democrats are performing triage.
This pattern is at least partly responsible for the moribund state of what was the labor movement’s top legislative priority when President Obama took office: the Employee Free Choice Act. This proposed federal bill, which would have eased hurdles that currently encumber the ability for workers to collectively bargain with their employers, was widely deemed to be the top Congressional priority of the labor movement when President Obama took office. But even when Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, the bill languished.
Meanwhile, last February, the New York Times reported that the administration was considering an executive order that would require federal contractors to take worker wages and benefits into account when considering which private company are awarded government contracts. The concept had been backed by a coalition of unions and progressive advocacy groups. More than a year later, no such executive order has been issued, and the President has been relatively mum about the onslaught against worker rights in Midwest states controlled by the GOP.
Perhaps the administration is intimidated by polls that show that unions are not a very popular institution in America. And perhaps that’s flagging popularity is due in part to the conventional wisdom equating unions with corporations in the game of political influence peddling. Now that several states are pushing legislation to essentially put public-sector unions to death, perhaps we can do the same to that myth.