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Why most union members are backing a Republican for governor of Rhode Island

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The historical, operational, and electoral connections between the Democratic party and the American labor movement run deep. Of the $141 million that labor gave to campaigns in 2012, 91 percent went to Democrats. President Obama beat Mitt Romney 58 percent to 40 percent among labor voters. And on most issues, the Democratic platform is obviously more union-friendly than Republicans'.

All of which makes this year's races for Rhode Island governor and lieutenant governor that much more surprising. The Republican nominee, Cranston mayor Allan Fung, is losing to the Democratic pick, State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, by six points. But he's beating her by a whopping twelve points among union voters. Meanwhile, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO's executive board voted unanimously this week to endorse Republican Lt. Governor nominee Catherine Taylor. It's not totally unheard of for union/Republican alliances to form in particular states and regions, but Rhode Island is not one of them. Taylor is the first Republican the state's AFL-CIO has endorsed in 28 years. So what's going on?

The Democratic nominees are solid union enemies


Unions have beef with Rhode Island Democratic governor nominee Gina Raimondo — and for good reason. (Friends of Gina Raimondo)

Raimondo is best known for pushing through an extremely aggressive pension reform package in 2011. Josh Barro, a supporter of the package, had a good rundown showing just how dramatic the changes involved were:

Reforms apply to future earnings by existing employees, not just to new workers. Unlike in states that have limited pension reforms to new or non-vested employees, this means that Rhode Island will start realizing substantial savings immediately because of the lower cost of the new system.


In a traditional defined-benefit plan, employee benefits are fixed and taxpayers bear all investment risk, which is how states have ended up with such large unfunded liabilities. In Rhode Island, new pension benefits will be split between a defined-benefit plan and a 401(k).


Finally, the state has frozen the cost of living adjustment offered to retirees in its current defined-benefit plan. This is the most controversial aspect of the reform -- it amounts to rescinding a benefit previously awarded -- but it reduces the unfunded liability by billions of dollars and was embraced by lawmakers looking for breathing room in the budget.

On top of that, the reforms also increased the retirement age from 62 to 67. Those are all hugely significant changes — and Raimondo made them without negotiating with unions. She pushed through legislation to impose them unilaterally. Public employees' unions, understandably, did not like this, and the resulting litigation is still ongoing. A potential settlement deal that would have scaled back the reforms significantly was rejected by the police union, and so the case is going to trial with a judge who has already ruled in favor of the idea that public workers have implied rights to pension benefits — a key contention of the unions in the case.

Unions actively opposed Raimondo's primary campaign, but were split between two candidates (Providence mayor Angel Taveras and political scion/Michelle Kwan husband Clay Pell), allowing her to win with a plurality. So it probably shouldn't be too big of a surprise that union voters are turning against her in the general.

The Democratic lieutenant governor pick, Cumberland mayor Dan McKee, also has enemies within labor. As WPRI's Ted Nesi notes, McKee has faced "deep hostility from the state’s teachers’ unions because of his longstanding and vocal advocacy of charter schools, which they oppose"; he too won his primary by besting two candidates who split the union vote.

Taylor isn't most Republicans

catherine taylor

Catherine Taylor, the AFL-CIO backed Republican nominee for Lieutenant Governor. (Catherine Taylor for Rhode Island Lt. Gov)

Okay, so unions have good cause to dislike Raimondo and McKee. But are the Republican options really any better? Fung — who implemented similar pension reforms in Cranston and supports adopting a "right to work" law to prevent all-union workforces — is on paper even less union-friendly than Raimondo, but punishing her for apostasy arguably makes strategic sense for labor.

Taylor is a different story. As Nesi notes, most of her background is working for the Chafees: Lincoln, the current Democratic governor and former Republican senator, and his father John, a longtime liberal Republican senator. As Lincoln's party change suggests, he and his father were hardly conservatives. John proposed a health care plan in 1994 that looks astonishingly like Obamacare, for example, and Lincoln's 2010 gubernatorial run was endorsed by a number of unions. That background — combined with Taylor telling the AFL-CIO that she opposes Rhode Island becoming a right-to-work state — makes her significantly more palatable from a labor point of view than Fung.

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