Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is nationally known because of his battle over union reforms in his state, which resulted in several spectacular, and futile, efforts by Big Labor to knock him out of office.
Just days before the next Republican presidential debate, Walker is offering bold proposals for national labor reform, ending the special legal advantages carved out for unions… and prohibiting public employee unions altogether.
The Washington Examiner accurately notes that Walker’s proposals “represent the most radical change to federal labor law in almost a century,” and would deliver “a massive blow to the strength of organized labor, a major player in Washington politics and staunch ally of the Democratic Party.”
Walker said the proposals were aimed at strengthening the rights of individual workers, which under current federal labor law are often sacrificed to bolster union strength. Unions would still exist, but they would be voluntary organizations with workers able to join or leave whenever they felt.
“I believe that fairness and opportunity for workers results from freedom. Freedom that allows workers and employers to create flexibility, choice, and innovation in the workplace. Unfortunately, many of the nation’s federal labor laws and regulations have stood as a roadblock to fairness and opportunity, and instead have created rigid, top-down workplaces that don’t really work for Americans,” Walker said.
Public employee unions are particularly ripe for reform.
They haven’t actually been around for all that long, relatively speaking – as late as the Sixties, the concept was generally viewed as absurd. During the Depression, FDR famously observed “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” One of the primary reasons Roosevelt reached this conclusion was his concern that public unions would “obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied,” most obviously if they went on strike.
However, like every other “progressive” reform, public unions are now treated as if they had existed since time immemorial, a permanent feature of American life invulnerable to reform.
They’ve become some of the biggest spenders and heaviest hitters in our political campaigns, and even though they’re one of the most perfect examples of a “special interest” devoted to using government power for their own benefit, they’re never mentioned as such when complaints about excessive sums of money influencing politics are made.
Walker tackled the subject head-on, with reference to his own experiences in Wisconsin, where imposing vital reforms over the objections of Big Labor turned into bitter political war:
In his announcement, Walker said public-sector workers shouldn’t have been allowed to form unions in the first place since there is an inherent conflict of interest in allowing those workers to lobby the government, something he saw first-hand in the Badger State. Unlike private-sector bosses, political leaders can become dependent on unions for support, giving the unions leverage at taxpayers’ expense.
“Big-government unions should have no place in the federal workplace, and I will reform the law to prohibit them,” Walker said. An estimated seven million state, local and federal workers belong to public-sector unions, accounting for about half of all union members nationally.
Walker’s reforms would also include eliminating the National Labor Relations Board, which his plan says has degenerated into “a one-sided advocate for big-labor special interests” that is “broken beyond repair.” He calls for transferring the NLRB’s oversight of union elections and role in addressing complaints about unfair labor practices to the National Mediation Board, while the NLRB’s “quasi-judicial functions” would be moved to the actual federal judiciary.
Walker would further require complete transparency for union expenditures, “including revealing the total compensation of union officers, itemizing union trust fund expenditures, increasing reporting requirements for local affiliates of government employee unions, and restoring conflict-of-interest reporting requirements.”
He would order the Labor Department to keep states updated on the cost of collective bargaining policies, and how much money they could save with reforms, and not only support Right-to-Work laws for the states that don’t have them yet, but make Right-to-Work the default position in federal law for all private, state, and local public sector workers. He would tackle the Big Labor stranglehold on government projects by repealing such laws as the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates union pay scale for all workers to make it harder for non-union shops to outbid organized labor, and breaking up the union monopoly on large federal highway projects.
Walker’s plan is generally opposed to the current craze for mandating all sorts of benefits, from overtime pay to paid leave, arguing that it’s better to give employees flexibility (and higher take-home pay) than to increase the invisible burden of cost on their labor with government-knows-best mandates.
As he did in Wisconsin, he would act to prevent unions from automatically siphoning dues out of workers’ paychecks. “The federal government should not be in the business of serving as dues collector for big-government special interests,” Walker’s plan asserts.
Walker’s plan will, of course, be savaged by Big Labor and its symbiotic Democrat Party with the usual rhetorical trick of portraying all union reforms as attacks on workers themselves. Union bosses are very fond of claiming that they’re responsible for everything good about the American workplace, even for people who have never worked in a union shop – in fact, they’re not shy about charging workers who don’t belong to unions for their “services,” when the opportunity presents itself.
Walker is well-aware of this gambit, as can be seen from the decidedly unsubtle title of his plan, which can be read in its entirety here: “My Plan to Give Power to the People, Not the Union Bosses.” It will be interesting to see if he can convince workers, especially those who aren’t part of organized labor, he’s more aligned with their interest than those union bosses. The moment may be ripe for such an appeal, given Americans’ growing sense that Big Government is a game rigged to favor insiders and big spenders – an attitude found on both Left and Right. Will people of the Left apprehensive about the influence of well-connected mega-corporations keep making an exception for some of the biggest, most politically active, most extravagant mega-corporations of all?
Walker’s ideas may also find purchase in a time of anxiety about a weak, molasses-slow “recovery” that isn’t doing much for personal income growth, and leaves unemployment chronically high for some key demographics, including minorities and young people. This is an economic environment in which warnings about the dangers of increasing the cost and difficulty of hiring people will resonate. Paradoxically, those anxieties can also be exploited by those who promise to use the power of government to “guarantee” high wages and benefits, and who portray fat-cat capitalists as the villains in a tale of exploitation.
Similarly, the diminishing membership of private-sector unions both gives them fewer loyal foot soldiers for political warfare… and makes them seem like less of a burning issue to non-union workers. Walker will naturally be criticized for trying to draw attention to himself with these big proposals in a crowded primary where he hasn’t been a major focus of attention. His success at folding these reforms into a big picture of American economic revival, and portraying himself as the ideal leader for that revolution – with battle scars from previous victories to show for it – will determine whether primary voters see his critique of Big Labor as a platform, or a gimmick.
Update: Hillary Clinton tried the old “unions = all workers” gambit on Walker Monday night, and found herself on the wrong end of a sick burn from the governor of Wisconsin:
.@HillaryClinton Actually, we’re protecting the American worker from being forced to support candidates like you. – SW
— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) September 15, 2015