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Republicans Think They've Finally Figured Out How to Kill Unions

John Gress/Getty Images

Remember unions? You know, those organizations that helped raise wages, made workplaces safer by pushing for laws that would punish employers for dangerous conditions, and gave us the 40-hour workweek?

You could be forgiven for forgetting them, considering that union membership has been on the decline for decades from its high of about 35 percent in the 1950s. That makes it all the more strange that in 2015—when union membership in the U.S. has fallen to a measly 11.1 percent—Republicans have cast unions as the ultimate economic villain, responsible for job loss, stagnating wages, and increased foreign competition for labor. The less power unions have, the more Republicans seem to fight against them.

This week, newly elected Illinois governor Bruce Rauner signed an executive order that will prevent public-sector unions in the state from collecting mandatory dues from employees who choose to decline union membership. Those fees, often called “fair share” dues, are unions’ guarantee that the people who benefit from union contracts will kick in their fair share for the cost of organizing and running the union, regardless of whether or not they choose to participate in it.

Fair share dues have been a feature of union organizing since their beginning; the movement against those dues seems to date back over 100 years. But it wasn’t until the 1940s, when a racist oil lobbyist named Vance Muse pushed for right-to-work bills, which allow people to opt-out of paying union dues and membership, even if a workplace is unionized and every employee benefits from a union-negotiated contract. It was an attempt to stop unions from pushing for integration and for the economic power of the working class (especially African Americans); the practice began to catch on. Now, 25 states have some form of right-to-work legislation on the books.

Before becoming governor, Rauner was one of the heads of GTCR, a private equity firm that specialized in finding smaller companies in local markets, merging them with similar companies, and giving them a star CEO—a process which often involved layoffs of workers. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, to hear Rauner tell it, the fair share fee is the only thing keeping the state’s unemployment rate above 6 percent. 

“Forced union dues are a critical cog in the corrupt bargain that is crushing taxpayers,” Rauner said. “An employee who is forced to pay unfair share dues is being forced to fund political activity with which they disagree. That is a clear violation of First Amendment rights—and something that, as governor, I am duty bound to correct.” 

Rauner’s executive order is unprecedented and possibly illegal: It essentially overrides the state’s Labor Relations Act, a law passed in 1984.

“It’s bizarre—lawless and bizarre,” said Martin Malin, the director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at the Illinois Institute of Technology Kent College of Law. “But you need to view it in a broader context. It fits in with what’s going on nationally.” 

In Kentucky, several counties passed their own right-to-work legislation, giving the state a patchwork of laws governing union dues. In Pennsylvania, Republican state legislators last year tried to stop unions from automatically deducting dues from people’s paychecks. In California, there’s a lawsuit headed to the Supreme Court, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which could turn it into a right-to-work state. This year, legislators in Wisconsin, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Missouri will all be considering right-to-work laws that would bar unions from charging fair share dues to non-members.

These pushes to quash unions could be seen as individual acts of anti-unionism. But with the 2016 elections looming, it’s worth considering what coordinated strategies might be at play: Attacking unions and the way they take in money isn’t just a great way to weaken them, but it also encourages corporate interests to donate money, which in turn might undermine the financial and political support of the Democratic Party. If Scott Walker’s successful 2011 push to gut collective bargaining in Wisconsin was any indication, rabid anti-unionism is a great way to gin up conservative anger and reel in cash. 

In 2011, Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker introduced legislation aimed at eliminating the right of unions to collectively bargain. The move set off massive protests and a recall election, but Walker was able to raise $22.6 million from outside groups—including $10 million from Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity—and spend five times more than his opponents to win the election. Taking a lesson from Walker, Michigan’s legislature pushed through Koch-backed anti-union legislation in 2012. With the help of the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council has drafted boilerplate anti-union legislation used by many states. ALEC drafted Michigan’s right-to-work bill, and similar ALEC-backed pushes have occurred in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina—though Michigan is the only one where ALEC was totally successful.

While anti-unionism has been spreading across the country for a few years, Gov. Rauner’s executive order took labor organizers by surprise. Rauner rode to victory in a Democratic-leaning state by promising the usual conservative solution to economic woes: tax cuts, tax breaks for corporations, and a promise to hold unions—especially ones that represent teachers—accountable. But with both houses of Illinois’s government still solidly Democratic, Rauner had no choice but to use an executive order based on the theory that compulsory union dues violate the First Amendment.

The governor’s attempt to skirt the state’s legislature to gut a bill will almost certainly be challenged in court. And that’s led some, like Martin Malin, to speculate that Rauner is gunning to get the Supreme Court to weigh in on compulsory dues. As it turns out, other lawmakers have gotten there before him. 

Last June in the case Harris v. Quinn, Justice Samuel Alito led a 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court in deciding that home health care aids and other caregivers in Illinois paid via Medicaid didn’t have to pay. The ruling was relatively narrow, and didn’t apply to full-fledged municipal employees like teachers. But as The Century Foundation points out, Alito has been laying the groundwork to dismantle compulsory union dues for years. His Harris opinion was filled with language that questions the legitimacy of the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that upheld a union’s rights to collect dues.

At the end of last month, the Supreme Court announced that it would take up the California case, whose ruling will probably force the court to make a call on mandatory fees. So why would Rauner push a legally dubious law if a much stronger case is already heading to the Supreme Court?

“It’s all to do serious damage to the Democratic Party,” said Bob Bruno, a labor law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Even with falling numbers, labor is still punching above its weight class. If you could do damage to that constituency group, you can do damage to Democrats.”

If Republicans really cared about the economy, gutting unions should be the last place to look—not only because unions have been proven time and time again to increase middle class wealth, but also because they are so weak. Participation’s at the lowest it’s been in a century; even if you believe unions are an economic drain, they’re not one worth exerting serious political effort over.

In Illinois, Rauner’s executive order wouldn’t have a large effect—there are only 6,500 current Illinois employees who have decided to opt out of their unions but still pay dues. Union busting, though, is great politics. Slightly more than half of Americans approve of unions, according to a Gallup survey, though that number has increased since the financial crisis. Gallup found that a majority of Americans would like to see unions’ power limited further, and that an increasing number of people think unions do more harm than good—and conservatives have capitalized on that waning public opinion, and have started to blame unions for the U.S.’s economic stagnation.

All that said: gutting unions isn’t only about finding financial and political support. In large part, it’s also about hobbling the Democratic Party. Even though unions are a decreasing force in the labor market, they still carry considerable political clout and have deep pockets. Unions spent $1.7 billion in the run up to the 2012 midterms. Even if unions survive the fight in states like Illinois, the multi-pronged attacks drain money and the political will to focus on other things—namely, electing Democrats. “Even if they lose, they win,” Malin said. “The union has to spend money fighting them. It’s all about resources.”

But anti-unionism’s largest advantage is its ability to galvanize Americans. Like the Tea Party coalesced around Obamacare, in 2016 unions could come to represent everything wrong with Democratic politics, bringing conservatives to the polls.

That could explain why next year’s likely front-runners are going out of their way to criticize them. Jeb Bush recently used a speech in Washington D.C. to demonize teacher unions. Governor Walker was similarly applauded at the Freedom Summit when he mentioned his anti-union stance.

Both Bush and Walker are now front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. (Though it’s still very early, of course.) But it’s Walker—the poster-child for anti-unionism thanks to his Koch-backed efforts in Wisconsin—who this week became the first possible 2016 presidential candidate to open an office in Iowa. He’s already established a big lead over the rest of the Republican field. Walker’s likely candidacy means that the rhetoric surrounding unions will soon matter more than ever.