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The Backlash to the GOP’s Union-Bashing Has Begun in Earnest

After a string of attacks on organized labor across the Midwest in recent years, Republicans are starting to pay at the polls.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Has the Republican Party’s grand experiment in union-busting finally come to an end? Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, rose to national prominence in 2011 when he passed a landmark bill dealing a blow to unions in the state and across the country. With Act 10, Walker stripped public workers of their right to collectively bargain, gutting their salaries, health care, and pensions. He then survived a vigorous recall effort, which featured 100,000 protesters storming the capitol rotunda in downtown Madison.

Walker was the face of an anti-union movement championed by Republicans and backed by libertarian financiers like the Koch brothers. But seven years later, in the midst of an ostensibly booming state economy, Walker narrowly lost his reelection bid on November 6—and he was not the only anti-union gubernatorial candidate to go down this election season.

The defeat of Walker in Wisconsin, as well as Bill Schuette in Michigan, Bruce Rauner in Illinois, and Kris Kobach in Kansas, is evidence that union-bashing politicians are finding it difficult to appeal to workers in a humming economy, which would otherwise seem to validate their claims that low wages and right-to-work laws have unleashed the prosperity-making powers of the market. In fact, national support for unions is at 62 percent, a 15-year high, with particular muscle in the Midwest, and among women and millennials. “There’s a sense in which Scott Walker and his ilk have overplayed their hand,” said Lane Windham, the associate director of the labor center at Georgetown University. “People understand that unions counterbalance corporate power, and corporations are too powerful.”

This was not the sense observers had two years ago when Donald Trump outperformed past Republican presidential candidates with union households and carried a string of states that formed the backbone of the old industrial Midwest. But his message—hostile to both trade and immigrants—went against the grain of Koch-style economic orthodoxy. While certain working class voters did gravitate toward Trump, the midterm election results in Wisconsin and elsewhere suggest that they have not been convinced by his party’s economic agenda and may even have soured on Trump himself. According to a Reuters-Ipsos poll released earlier this year, Trump’s support among union voters has fallen 15 points.

Many voters living under Republican leadership are reacting to stagnant wages and the rise of underemployment. (Despite working fewer hours than they would prefer, underemployed workers get counted as “employed” in official statistics.) In 2011, when Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee teacher’s union, first checked her pay stub online after Act 10 passed, she broke into tears. “Those cuts were devastating,” said Mizialko, who took a $10,000 cut in wages and benefits in the first year alone. Since the passage of Act 10, membership in Wisconsin’s largest teacher’s union plummeted from 98,000 to 32,000. Once the progressive heart of the labor movement in the United States, Wisconsin saw its union membership drop 46 percent between 2011 and 2017.

While Walker’s campaign underscored Wisconsin’s 3 percent unemployment rate (below the national average), workers in the state were fighting to find enough work and wages remained low. At $7.25 an hour, Wisconsin’s minimum wage has not budged since Walker took office seven years ago. And because of Act 10, many teachers and government workers—disproportionately women and African Americans—have had to find additional sources of income. “In Wisconsin, people are working three or four jobs,” said Mizialko. “They are driving Uber. They’re delivering groceries. They’re picking up jobs at the state fair. They’re just stitching together little stints of work to make ends meet for their families.”

They also bristled at Walker’s cozy relationship with big business. In July 2017, he pledged $4.5 billion in state tax credits for the Taiwanese manufacturing giant FoxConn to build a state-of-the-art plant outside of Kenosha that promised to bring 13,000 jobs to the area. But as David Dayen wrote last week in The New Republic, the FoxConn deal has been a disaster and was an important factor in Walker’s fall. The subsidy is the largest to a foreign corporation in U.S. history, and it comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers. Most of the subsidy will be delivered to FoxConn in direct cash payments—at an estimated 18,000 in tax dollars per Wisconsin household.

Walker was among a handful of Republican governors—including Rauner, Rick Snyder in Michigan, Eric Greitens in Missouri, and Mitch Daniels in Indiana—who transformed the Midwest with their ideas about small government, austerity, and free market solutions. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity initiative (AFP) poured millions of dollars into the region to pass legislation that would hobble unions and freeze minimum wages. Meanwhile, gerrymandering and new voter restrictions that favor conservatives prevented voters from overturning those laws at the polls—with the exception of the upset victory of a proposition that repealed right-to-work in Missouri in August.

Over the past decade, this right-wing alliance has reshaped the Midwest by decimating private and public sector unions. Right-to-work laws, which drastically undercut union power in the private sector, have passed in Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, and Wisconsin since 2012. Public sector unions underwent similar attacks in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan. Such laws make union dues optional, thereby draining unions of the funds they need to fight for workers. Workers in right-to-work states earn $1,558 less on average per year than similar workers in non-right-to-work states. When right-to-work passed under Rick Snyder in Michigan in 2012, Americans for Prosperity hailed the legislation “as the shot heard around the world for workplace freedom.”

The passage of right-to-work laws has gone hand-in-hand with declining support for the Democratic Party in the Midwest. Until Trump’s victory in 2016, Michigan and Wisconsin had not elected a Republican president since the 1980s. “Unions have a long history of turning out Democratic voters,” said Windham, the labor expert from Georgetown. “Without unions to promote a working-class agenda, people are left to listen to right-wing radio. We have to think about that to understand what happened in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in 2016.”

But there is also a strong feeling that the Democratic Party has lost touch with its union roots, allowing a supposed populist like Trump to make inroads with working voters. That is starting to change, thanks in no small part to the wake-up call delivered by the 2016 election, which made it clear that Democrats cannot take those voters for granted. But there are other reasons some Democrats are re-embracing union politics, including a wave of teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado that galvanized voters this year, as well as a growing realization that the face of union membership has changed, from the white industrial worker of the past century to a diverse coalition of women, immigrants, and minorities working in industries like hospitality, telecommunications, nursing, and media.

Ironically, low employment across the Midwest gives workers the upper hand. Last year saw a slight uptick in union membership in the United States. Employers are eager to retain and hire workers, giving workers leverage to form and expand unions. Alongside fresh leadership, this provides an opportunity for workers to stage strikes, form unions, and restore the rights they have lost.

The backlash to the GOP’s anti-union efforts is also producing tangible results. Voters in Michigan elected Gretchen Whitmer as governor with the backing of the state’s unions. In Illinois, voters ousted the union-busting Republican incumbent Rauner, who vetoed a $15 minimum wage bill and fought to pass right-to-work laws. “I think the public perception of unions is getting better each and every day. We are seeing young people responding very well to unions,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. In Missouri’s August referendum on the state’s right-to-work laws, a full 65 percent of voters opted to overturn them.

Still, rebuilding the labor movement in the Midwest will be a herculean task. Although the majority of Americans say they support unions, only 11 percent of U.S. workers belonged to unions in 2017. “A defeat of Walker is a major victory,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “but there is much ideological and organizational work to be done before liberalism and unionism are once again joined at the hip.”