Labor Rights and the Power of Politics
Over fifteen months ago, tens of thousands of Wisconsinites flooded the state capitol in Madison in protest of Governor Scott Walker’s bill to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights. Because Governor Walker’s efforts were funded by right-wing corporate interests and sought to cripple organized labor, still the strongest check on corporate influence over government, the battle was rightly seen as having tremendous importance for the balance of political power in America. After failing to prevent the passage of the bill and being stymied by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, opponents of the anti-collective bargaining law successfully gathered enough signatures to force a recall election of Governor Walker, and on Tuesday he will face the voters just seventeen months into his term.
And from that moment, when the future of our democracy seemed to hang in the balance, we’ve arrived at . . . just another gubernatorial election. That’s not entirely true: the race has attracted more money and national media attention than your typical gubernatorial election, and turnout is expected to be quite high. But the race has become less about corporate influence over politics or even about bargaining rights and is instead mostly about what every other election this year is about: who has created/will create the most jobs.
Part of the reason the perception of the fight in Wisconsin has changed is that it is now overshadowed by the presidential election. When the bill was pending before the Wisconsin legislature and protestors stormed the capitol, it was the most important political story at the time. Now, questions of “what does this mean for democracy?” or “what does this mean for the labor movement?” have been replaced by “what does this mean for Obama?” Democratic primary voters are also complicit in turning this into just another election by nominating just another Democrat as their nominee. The recall effort was weakened when progressives split over which candidate to back in the primary. Labor largely backed Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk—the candidate most committed to restoring collective bargaining rights—but primary voters ultimately chose Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a more moderate candidate and Walker’s 2010 opponent.
Polls suggest that Walker is likely to win on Tuesday and survive the recall. Beyond the issue of corporate versus worker influence over elections, Walker’s improved standing demonstrates the broader importance of this political moment, with the most reactionary and confrontational factions of the conservative movement taking hold of the Republican Party, because it shows the self-reinforcing nature of electoral and legislative victories. For as much as Americans complain about our government, we have a strong bias toward the status quo in our laws. Major legislative change is both hard to enact and hard to repeal. When Governor Walker first moved to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, the people of Wisconsin opposed his bill by a margin of 52-39. Now that the law is in place, however, and the issue can be framed as one of bestowing rights on public workers rather than taking rights from them, Wisconsin voters now favor Walker’s law by about the same margin that they once opposed it.
As I’ve argued before, part of the reason the debate over the Affordable Care Act has been so heated is the recognition by conservatives that once the law is implemented it will be very hard to repeal. While the rhetoric of the law’s opponents is ridiculously overblown with regard to how much its specific provisions will involve government in day-to-day health care decisions, they are correct to fear that the law—like Social Security, wage and hour laws, the Civil Rights Act, and many others before it—will permanently alter the public’s view of the relationship between government, industry, and the people.
Labor rights provide a telling illustration of the power of the status quo. The National Labor Relations Act—a piece of New Deal legislation protecting private sector workers’ rights to collective action and requiring employers to recognize and bargain with unions when their workers choose to be represented—has been in effect since 1935. And while the National Labor Relations Board—the agency created to enforce the Act—has been under persistent attack from the right in the Tea Party era, there has not been any serious effort to fully repeal the NLRA, and doing so is not part of Mitt Romney’s platform, as anti-labor as it is. But can you imagine if the NLRB did not already exist and President Obama proposed its creation? A government agency that gets to tell corporations and (gasp!) small business owners how they can and cannot act toward their employees? Bolshevism! When labor pressed for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a fairly modest set of reforms intended to modernize the NLRA and limit some of the most abused anti-organizing tactics used by employers, it could not even get the bill to a vote despite having a Democrat in the White House and strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
The collapse of the U.S. economy in September of 2008 and the deterioration of the Republican brand under George W. Bush provided Democrats with their best opportunity in generations to pass major legislation like the Affordable Care Act. With those gains still uncertain and blame for the faltering economy shifting from Bush to President Obama, 2012 may be the best opportunity Republicans will ever have to roll back Obama’s reforms. If successful this year, Republicans could be emboldened—guided by Governor Walker’s apparently successful attack on collective bargaining rights—to turn back the clock on decades of other progressive legislation. With these considerations in mind, it may be time for me to start using the title of this series a little less sarcastically.