Scott Walker wants to take his fight against organized labor national. Today he released a plan for a new war not just on union representation, but on worker rights in general.
It’s quite a document, one we might call Scott Walker’s Race to the Bottom.
I have no doubt that Walker is sincere in his desire to see every labor union crushed and every vestige of workers’ power banished — or, in his lingo, “flexibility.” I’d also be surprised if any of the other candidates objected to any part of it. So the plan is worth understanding if you want to grasp what today’s GOP is offering today’s workers.
While he doesn’t say so explicitly, what Walker seems to hope for is really a world without any labor unions at all, or at the very least a world where unions are so weakened that they are unable to advocate for anyone. Here are the major parts of his plan:
Eliminate the National Labor Relations Board. Walker says the NLRB is “a one-sided advocate for big-labor special interests,” but the truth is that Democrats appoint pro-labor members to the board, while Republicans appoint anti-labor members to the board. Transferring the NLRB’s authority to adjudicate labor disputes to the courts would probably be a mixed bag in terms of worker rights.
“Eliminate big-government unions.” This is pretty straightforward. You don’t like unions? Get rid of ’em. Today there are around seven million Americans represented by a public sector union, and around one million of those are employed by the federal government (including the Postal Service). If Walker got his way, the latter group could kiss their representation goodbye — and given his record, it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t mind getting rid of the state and local public-sector unions as well.
Institute a national “right to work” law. The phrase “right to work” is a triumph of conservative PR, because how could anyone object to a right to work? What it means in practice, however, is that in places where unions negotiate salaries and benefits for workers, those workers can’t be required to contribute to the union that got them those salaries and benefits (no one can be required to join a union, but where there are no right to work laws, you can be required to contribute when the union negotiates on your behalf). Whenever a right to work law is being debated in a particular state, Republicans argue that because the law would weaken unions, it will draw employers who don’t want to have to bother with the high wages and good benefits those unions can negotiate.
Which, the evidence suggests, is probably true. But such laws have another effect: they pull down wages and benefits. So that’s the bargain a state makes when passes a right to work law: more jobs, but worse jobs.
Think about what would happen if you took this policy national. On a state level, it’s possible for a right to work law to draw a factory from one state to another. But if every state was a right to work state, then that incentive to move is eliminated. The decrease in union representation would spread, which drives down wages and benefits for everyone. Whether you think that’s a good thing depends on whether you are concerned with the interests of large business owners or the interests of workers.
There are a number of smaller ideas in Walker’s plan, like eliminating the requirement that federal contractors pay the “prevailing wage” (i.e. union wage) for construction projects, further reinforcing what seems to be Walker’s belief that the problem with unions is that they let workers earn too much money. And I have to highlight this bit:
“The Obama administration’s government-knows-best proposed rules will require employers to pay overtime rates to greater numbers of salaried works and require federal contractors to provide paid sick leave. Unfortunately, these rules will only reduce wages and deprive workers of the flexibility to balance work and life commitments.
“On Day One of my administration, I will repeal any regulation that reduces employee flexibility, as well as work for changes to federal law to allow time off for overtime hours worked. My changes will protect workplace flexibility by ensuring that misguided big-government mandates do not stand in the way of individuals and families.”
So Walker will roll back the Obama administration’s efforts to make more workers eligible for overtime pay and sick leave, because that would mean more “employee flexibility.” Indeed, just imagine the worker making $7.50 an hour saying to herself, “Boy, now that I have the flu I sure am glad I have to choose between dragging myself into work or staying home and losing my pay. Thanks for the flexibility, President Walker!”
Though Walker’s plan is couched in all kinds of pro-worker rhetoric like that (and endless repetition of the phrase “union bosses”), in truth it’s about as pure an expression of supply-side, trickle-down economics as you’ll find. Its basic principle is that once we eliminate workers’ ability to bargain collectively, everything will turn out great for everyone.
But here’s what we know: union membership has been declining for decades, while incomes have been stagnant and Americans have felt increasingly at the mercy of employers who treat them like interchangeable cogs who can be manipulated, surveilled, and tossed aside at the employer’s whim. There’s no question that Scott Walker succeeded in creating a politically beneficial showdown with public sector unions in Wisconsin. But how many Americans think that the problem with our economy is that too much power in the workplace lies in the hands of workers?