Labor Girds for Battle

The war between labor and the Republican Party has heated up again, with Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio signing into law a bill that restricts the right of state and local workers to bargain collectively. The Ohio bill adds police and fire, exempted in the Wisconsin bill, to the mix of unions who will see a host of new restrictions on their collective bargaining rights.

The Republican moves against unions have put the unions on a war footing, with recalls being launched in Wisconsin against eight Republican state senators, and with a statewide referendum being planned in Ohio. Both Politico and Chris Cillizza over at the Fix have some interesting tidbits about this political battle.

Politico focuses in on unions that have, in the past, been strongly supportive of many Republican candidacies, the police and fire unions. Even in Wisconsin where Governor Walker exempted them from the new law, they have turned on Republicans, joining the protests against the new restrictions on bargaining rights. The support that Republicans have received in the past from these unions seems to be gone, replaced not only by hostility but by a new wave of political activism by public sector unions that could bring some real benefit to Democratic candidacies in the next cycle of local, state, and federal elections.

After the Politico story Chris Cillizza brings the theory around to the practical, highlighting the special Wisconsin election for Milwaukee County Executive to fill the seat of (you guessed it) Scott Walker. This is a rubber meets the road match that will be closely followed to see if all this talk about backlash against Republicans will translate. Republican Jeff Stone, who led in the open primary with 43% of the vote, is facing Chris Abele, who has unleashed an expensive ad campaign trying to exploit the connection between Governor Walker and Stone. Abele finished 18 points behind Stone in the primary, but is poised to spend a million dollars of his own money to try to capitalize on the declining poll numbers of Governor Walker, and link the Governor to Stone. The strength of the so called “backlash” will be put to the test here, with the winning side able to claim that public support on the union issue is with them. Abele has to contend with the fact that Scott Walker handily won this seat three times (1 special and two regular elections). I see Abele closing the gap, especially with all that money, but victory will be difficult. If he does pull it off then the Republican state senators better start sweating, because the bell will be tolling for them real soon.

With all of the political heat and coverage being generated by the collective bargaining issue there has been some lack of (national) coverage of the budget issues facing both Wisconsin and Ohio, and what relationship the budgets have on the local unions. Both Governors are submitting austerity budgets, with Kasich in Ohio proposing cuts of 25% in local aid. Governor Walker has also proposed steep cuts in local aid. These cuts, and their impacts to local services, including education, will be severe. And yet the choices being made through these cuts are honestly not being discussed at all. As I point out to my union friends frequently if this is how local government is going to be funded in the future then there will be NOTHING really to fight about. Massive job losses and cuts in service will occur, and the existence of collective bargaining rights will not have much impact on that fact. You may be able to protect some of what has been won at the bargaining table, but without funding it is all a moot point. The local aid proposals of Governors Walker and Kasich not only cut local aid but try to restrict the locals from purchasing more and better local services through higher property taxes. The fiscal realities are stark, but when voters see that class sizes will balloon, essential fire services will be cut, and that proactive policing will be a thing of the past there is going to be hell to pay. Every layer of government can and should be more efficient. The excesses (and they are NOT outliers) of some public employee contracts and workplace rules must be dealt with, but cutting funding to the locals to this extent MUST result in greatly diminished services in local government. That is a choice for the public and its elected representatives to make. But the idea, sold for years by politicians of all stripes, that Americans can have a full array of services without paying for them is about to be shown for the hokum that it is.

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