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In the three months since union supporters took over the Wisconsin state capitol and ignited a national debate over public-sector unions, one thing has become clear: It’s been a bad year for organised labour.The latest blow to unions comes from lawmakers in deep-blue Massachusetts, where state Senate leaders unveiled a plan today that would limit municipal workers’ right to bargaining over healthcare benefits. The measure – intended to relieve struggling cities and towns from skyrocketing employee healthcare costs – is similar to a bill approved by the state House last month.
Massachusetts labour officials are up in arms over the proposal. But so far, national union leaders have offered only tepid support. They have their hands full elsewhere.
In Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican governors have waged a frontal assault on organised labour with bills that sharply curtail bargaining rights for public-sector workers. Democrats and union supporters are fighting tooth-and-nail to roll back the measures through recall and repeal, but success seems uncertain, at best.
Across the country, unions have suffered more quiet losses, at the hands of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
In Connecticut, Democratic Governor Dan Malloy sent layoff notices to nearly 5,000 unionized state workers this month when negotiations stalled. labour unions backed down this week, agreeing to $1.6 billion in wage and benefit cuts, as well as collective bargaining concessions.
In Illinois, the Democrat-controlled state legislature passed an education bill last week that makes it easier to fire teachers and lengthen the school day without union approval. The measure was backed by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, both Democrats with strong ties to organised labour.
As Josh Kraushaar points out in today’s National Journal, it is increasingly clear that unions will have to modernize to remain relevant in the changed political atmosphere. That means not only reshaping organised labour to fit the new economy, he notes, but also dealing with the threats from within the movement.
“labour is facing renewed competition from its donor base thanks to new organisations more connected to the national Democratic infrastructure. New laws passed in several battleground states make it harder for unions to automatically collect dues from public employees, making these new groups more attractive.
We’re now seeing a proliferation of powerful, outside Democratic groups emerging—House Majority PAC, Priorities USA, American Bridge—that will be serving a similar role as Big labour without the baggage.
Before the Citizens United ruling, unions were the main game in town to assist Democrats, given their ease in collecting dues and expertise in working around the campaign finance system. The GOP’s conservative allies, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, didn’t have as much desire or wherewithal to keep up, given the complicated maze of campaign finance regulations.
But just like in the world around them, increased competition is posing a serious threat to labour’s influence.”