Executive Director Reports

The GOP's turn against workers

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

In an era of increasing political polarization, AFSCME has worked to maintain our long tradition of nonpartisanship.

Our union’s campaign endorsements are based on voting records, candidate interviews and questionnaires covering a broad range of issues of importance to working families, not whether an individual has a “D” or “R” after their name.

Using those metrics, it’s certainly true that the majority of the candidates our union has endorsed have been Democrats. But at every level of government and in every type of office—state legislator, comptroller, county board, city council, mayor, sheriff—there have always been Republicans who garnered AFSCME endorsements because they demonstrated a willingness to stand up for union members—sometimes breaking with their own party leadership to do so.

Now those voices of moderation in the GOP are steadily being silenced as the Big Money elite tightens its grip on Republican officeholders. There’s a new—and strictly enforced—party orthodoxy that not only won’t support union members but demands total opposition to workers’ rights and an aggressive strategy to eliminate labor unions from the political landscape.

Public sector unions are the top target of these attacks because in recent decades it is public employees who have built the strongest, most vibrant unions. Well-financed and fiercely executed, this union-destruction strategy first reared its head in Wisconsin when Republicans gained control of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature in 2010, and Scott Walker made his first act and Number One priority the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Despite massive protests, Walker’s anti-worker Act 10 became law in a matter of months. Within a year, Wisconsin teachers, as well as state, local government and university employees had lost their right to collectively bargain over wages, benefits or conditions of employment. They were left solely at the mercy of their employers, many of whom acted quickly to strip away basic workplace rights and protections.

Now, with a Republican trifecta in Iowa after last November’s election, history is all too rapidly repeating itself. No sooner had the new Assembly been sworn in than the Republican majorities in both houses moved to pass legislation that wipes out collective bargaining rights for public employees in that state. And Iowa’s Republican governor has already signed the bill into law. Like their brethren in the Badger State, public servants in Iowa will soon find themselves “at-will” employees, without any of the safeguards of a union contract.

Iowa even added a new twist, making it against the law for any public employer to deduct union dues from an employee’s paycheck. Laws prohibiting dues deductions are another one of the weapons in the Republican Party’s new anti-union arsenal. Employees can sign up to join unions and request paycheck dues deduction, but the law won’t allow it to happen. The prohibition is statewide and applies to every public employer. So even if a local mayor or school superintendent wants to agree to deduct union dues, state law will bar them from doing so.

Private sector unions have not escaped these attacks. So-called “Right-to-Work” legislation aimed right at industrial, service and building trades unions is being rammed through in Republican-controlled legislatures, including our neighbors Kentucky and Missouri.

These RTW laws allow employees to refuse to pay any dues or fees to the union that represents them. Clearly unions are drained of resources if they are forced to represent employees who contribute nothing toward that representation.   And, of course, that resource drain is exactly what this new breed of Republicans has in mind for organized labor.

This fiercely anti-union takeover of the Republican Party is driven by the likes of the Koch Brothers and other ultra-right elites and pushed by their extensive web of policy, media and advocacy groups in states across the country.

In our state the Illinois Policy Institute is the chief organizational vehicle pressing to wipe out union rights, silence workers’ voices, and drive down wages and benefits. Its chief agent is Governor Bruce Rauner who, while waging an unrelenting war on his own employees in state government, is trying to eliminate collective bargaining rights for local government employees and backing a federal lawsuit aimed at outlawing the collection of union dues or fees.

Those who are out to destroy unions are highly organized with vast wealth at their disposal. We ignore them at our peril. We cannot wait until the axe is about to fall, but must act now to prevent a takeover of our state and destruction of our rights.

Bruce Rauner has already contributed $50 million to his gubernatorial re-election campaign. He’s getting ready. Let’s make sure we are too.