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Scott Walker's plan to crush American labor unions, explained

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Seeking to inject some energy into his political campaign and show that the high-profile showdown with Wisconsin labor unions that made him famous has enduring relevance, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker this week laid out the most aggressive anti-union legislative agenda of any candidate in decades.

Right now, organizing new workers into labor unions is challenging but unions that do exist have a number of legal and institutional protections and privileges that make them a force to be reckoned in business negotiations and political campaigns alike. Walker would make it harder to organize new unions, but also substantially change the status of existing unions to give them many fewer legal and financial resources to advance their vision of workers' interests.

Walker's basic dislike of labor unions is pretty par for the course for conservative politicians these days, but Walker has a particular history with labor and a real passion for the cause of union-bashing. As governor, Walker took office in a fairly strong union state and he acted to curb their political power, defying massive protests and a recall vote then surviving a 2014 reelection battle in which he was one of labor's top targets. These battles are the political fire in which Walker's national reputation was forged, and his union reform plan is an effort to take the heat national.

Scott Walker's eight point plan

The plan can be broken down into eight main elements:

  1. A national right to work law.
  2. Disbanding the National Labor Relations Board and disbursing its functions
  3. Eliminate labor unions of federal employees.
  4. Eliminate unions' rights to serve as exclusive bargaining agents.
  5. Bar the use of union dues for political activities.
  6. Shift the rules of union-organizing elections.
  7. Repeal the Obama administration's overtime rule.
  8. Repeal the Davis-Bacon "prevailing wage" rule for federal contracts.

The last two of these are issues that are important to American unions, but the first six really strike at the heart of organized labor's role in American society. In combination, they would create a world in which collective bargaining as we know it does not exist and in which unions' role in lobbying and electioneering is drastically curtailed. Given the long-term structural decline in union membership from about a third of the workforce to ten percent of it (and lower than that in the private sector), this is more or less the world we are heading toward anyway. But Walker's agenda would greatly hasten the process and shut the door on any possibility for a union revival.

Why does Scott Walker hate unions?

Walker's basic critique of labor unions is not especially unusual for a modern-day Republican Party politician. His view is that unions are creations of intrusive federal labor regulations, and like other conservative politicians he is not a fan of federal labor regulations. He thinks public sector unions increase the cost of government, and that a private sector union's legally established right to serve as the exclusive bargaining agent for an entire class of workers runs "counter to the spirit of free enterprise and workplace flexibility."

But Walker takes an especially dim view of unions' political role. As Johns Hopkins University political scientist Daniel Schlozman writes in his new book When Movements Anchor Parties, labor unions have a unique role in the Democratic Party and in forging the modern-day liberal coalition.

To this day, some unions (especially police, fire, and building trades) sometimes endorse some Republican candidates but on the whole labor is an important source of money and a major source of manpower to Democratic campaigns. Labor also participates centrally in many multi-pronged progressive coalitions. Democrats don't always do what unions want — the Obama administration has often found itself at odds with labor on issues related to trade and K-12 education — but labor opposition to an administration initiative is one of the only things that can prompt massive congressional defections from Obama's agenda.

Walker repeatedly refers to unions as "special interests" and public sector unions (which, these days, account for most union members) as "big-government special interests."

Where Walker differs from other Republicans is not so much in his view of unions on the merits, but in his view of their centrality to political conflict. Walker sees Ronald Reagan's confrontation with the air traffic controllers' union as an event of world-historical significance. Where some liberals see the nefarious hand of the Koch Brothers as the key reason their own political hopes and dreams are not realized, Walker sees union power as the master key to American politics. Take risky political steps to crush union power as he did in Wisconsin and you'll open the doors to political change. This is, in part, self-serving since it casts his own governorship as consequential in a way that Jeb Bush's was not. But it also gives every appearance of being sincere.

Scott Walker has two-level strategy

One of the planks of this program is really not like the others, namely the proposal that it be made illegal for a labor union to be designated as the exclusive bargaining agent of a given set of workers.

This is, under current US law, more or less what it means for there to be a labor union. When you say that the pilots at American Airlines or the journalists at Gawker Media or the teachers in Chicago Public Schools are unionized, what you mean is that there is a union that is legally designated to bargain collectively for those classes of workers. No exceptions to the collective bargain and no side-deals allowed. There's a union and the union negotiates the contract.

If you get rid of that — as Walker is proposing to do — everything else becomes more or less irrelevant.

So you can think of the other planks as something like a backup strategy. If Walker isn't able to make collective bargaining impossible altogether, he wants to make it harder for unions to win organizing elections, harder to use the contract process to obtain funds, and harder to use funds for political purposes. If necessary, he will specifically try to curb public sector unions and be more lenient to private sector ones.

But his overarching vision is of an America where there is no collective bargaining. Workers may form clubs of some kind that they might or might not choose to refer to as labor unions, but they would not perform the core bargaining function of a union as we understand it.

Scott Walker wants laxer enforcement of existing labor law

One of Walker's more dramatic-sounding proposals is that he wants to entirely eliminate the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) which currently enforces many aspects of labor law, and devolve its functions to the National Mediation Board (which mostly handles airline disputes) and the judiciary.

This, he says, is because the NLRB "has become a one-sided advocate for big labor special interests."

In reality, the NLRB is composed of presidential appointees so its attitude tends to swing according to the prevailing winds in the White House. Under Barack Obama the NLRB has acted as a fairly loyal ally of labor and shifting its powers to the judiciary would produce a less union-friendly outcome. But a Scott Walker administration could easily achieve this by appointing union-hostile NLRB members rather than going through the trouble of changing the law.

A national right-to-work law would cost unions money

A little bit confusingly, right-to-work (RTW) laws do not establish a right to work. Instead, they prohibit certain kinds of contractual arrangements between employers and employees at unionized workplaces. It's easier to understand what RTW does if you first look at how things typically work in a unionized private-sector workplace in a non-RTW state.

First, you have to start a labor union and get it recognized as the bargaining agent for a specific class of workers. Then once the union is in place, it has to negotiate a first contract with the employer. In almost every case, one provision of that contract is going to be that every worker in the bargaining unit needs to either join the union (and pay dues) or else pay a "representation fee" to the union — the idea being that since all workers in the bargaining unit benefit from the contract's gains for workers, all should contribute to the union's work.

In an RTW state, these representation fee agreements are illegal. You can join the union and pay dues, or you can stay out of the union and keep your money.

Naturally, some people are going to avail themselves of this option thus significantly reducing the revenue available to the union. However, while right-to-work laws are in place in about half of American states they coexist with the federal rules governing the idea of a union as an exclusive bargaining agent. Walker wants to scrap this rule, which would drastically change the context for RTW laws and possibly render them irrelevant.

Repealing Davis-Bacon would make construction projects cheaper

The "Davis-Bacon" rule is a law dating from the 1930s that requires workers on federally funded construction projects to be paid the local "prevailing wage" for a person in their line of work. A contractor cannot, in other words, bring workers in from a lower-wage region or undercut other bidders by employing non-union workers in a heavily unionized region. By the same token, even in a severe recession the government cannot scoop up a bunch of people off the unemployment rolls at low wages.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that repealing this rule would save the federal government about $12 billion over ten years. Alternatively, spending could stay flat and the federal government could undertake somewhat more projects at a somewhat lower per-project rate.

An attack on unions this drastic is politically risky

Republicans have advanced union-unfriendly measures for years, typically in a somewhat subtle way working through regulatory and judicial channels and chipping away at ancillary aspects of union power. With union membership steadily dropping as a share of the economy, time appears to be on the side of anti-union forces and it does not seem obviously important to take dramatic, highly visible actions.

Walker's program, however, is so sweeping as to essentially just be asking the question of whether or not there should be any labor unions at all. Americans' answer to this question is pretty consistently yes, so there is some risk in taking this approach.

union approval

Of course, union leaders will inevitably support Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders) against any plausible Republican nominee so simply going for the death blow makes a certain amount of sense. On the other hand, unions have traditionally had an imperfect ability to deliver the votes of their own members — in 2012, 40 percent of residents of union households voted for Mitt Romney — and Walker could be putting their support at risk.