By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 23, 2011;
Wisconsin is just the tip of the iceberg. The Republican war on unions goes far beyond Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to end collective-bargaining rights for public employees in his state or Gov. John Kasich's effort to do the same in Ohio.
For a more comprehensive view of the Republicans' war on unions, we need to focus on what Republicans in Washington did last week. In the House, Republicans passed, as part of their continuing resolution to fund the federal government through September, a provision that slashed the funding of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by one-third.
But the truly breathtaking measure was an amendment by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to defund the NLRB - closing it down altogether - until the fiscal year ends in September. The measure failed Thursday because 60 Republicans joined every Democrat present in voting no, but three-quarters of House Republicans - 176 of them, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) - voted yes. In other words, the House leadership supported abolishing the right of American workers - in the private sector no less than the public sector - to bargain collectively.
It is, after all, the NLRB that conducts the elections through which private-sector workers choose or reject a union. It is the NLRB that polices business and labor misconduct and that has the power to rule a strike or lockout unlawful. No other agency of government has that power. Defunding the NLRB would be like defunding every election board in the country during presidential and congressional elections: People would maintain, theoretically, their right to elect their officials, but there'd be no one to print the ballots or count the votes.
Many Republicans who voted for the Price amendment also acted in contradiction of the party's insistence over the past two years on the sanctity of secret-ballot elections as the only way that workers should be able to vote on having a union. In 2009 and 2010, the White House and congressional Democrats promoted a bill that would have enabled workers to form a union when a majority of them signed union-affiliation cards, thereby avoiding a contested election.
In opposing this measure, which came to be known as "card check," Republicans intoned repeatedly that it tampered with the basic American right to an NLRB-supervised election with secret ballots. In March 2009, one House Republican asked Democratic leader Steny Hoyer, in floor debate, when the Democrats planned to bring the card-check bill to the floor. In answering, Hoyer also made the case for the legislation, which prompted his GOP interlocutor to attack it as undemocratic.
"Any democracy," the Republican said, "has also in it the elections that afford one the right to a private or secret ballot, which this bill completely takes away from the workers of this country."
That Republican was Eric Cantor, who voted last week to effectively abolish the very right he extolled in his colloquy with Hoyer.
The Price amendment may not have passed, but the funding reduction that was included in the Republicans' continuing resolution that did pass would itself do plenty to cripple the NLRB. In a statement last Friday, NLRB Chairman Wilma Liebman and Chief Counsel Lafe Solomon wrote that it would require the board to furlough all of its 1,665 employees for 55 days between now and the end of the fiscal year. They estimated that it would increase by 18,000 the backlog of cases before the board.
When the congressional Republicans' attack on the board is considered alongside the union-busting offensives of Republican governors, it's clear that a working majority of the Republican Party is bent on abolishing unions. As union membership has declined to a mere 6.9 percent of the private-sector workforce, resentment toward unionized public-sector workers, who have retained the benefits that private-sector workers had when they were unionized, has grown - creating a political opportunity for Republicans to mount their assault. But why bother to defund the NLRB when private-sector unionism is so low?
The answer is that unions remain the most effective part of the Democratic coalition in turning out minority voters come election time and in getting working-class whites to vote Democratic. As such, they are the linchpin of progressive change in America. Taking them off the political map isn't about budgets. It's about removing a check on right-wing and business power in America.
As Cantor once suggested, even if he didn't mean it, unions are a necessary part of any functioning democracy. Not that that seems to matter to today's Republican Party.