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Friday, March 4, 2011

For GOP, Right To Work = Obamacare

As the battle with the Public Employee Unions in Wisconsin continues to rage, some states have taken the battle as a cue to push for Right to Work laws in their states.  But just as Obamacare became the key vote in the Democrats losses in the 2010 elections, Right to Work laws may be the GOP’s undoing.

Labor-supporters and detractors alike have historically been opposed to collective bargaining for the PEUs, but as union membership began to decline in the 50’s and 60’s, the public employees were seen as fertile ground to gain members and dollars.  In 1959, progressive Wisconsin became the first state to sanction collective bargaining rights for public employees.  While the practice has spread to other states, today 24 states still restrict or limit that right, as does the federal government.

Defining the difference between the PEUs and private-sector unions is key for the conservative viewpoint to prevail.  This is why the union leadership, Democrats and others have sought to blur that line.  But the case for PEUs is not analogous to the private-sector unions.  As The National Review's Jonah Goldberg stated in his article, Public Unions Must Go,
"Traditional, private-sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management....
Government unions have no such narrative on their side. Do you recall the Great DMV Cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair’s famous schoolhouse sequel to The Jungle? No? Don’t feel bad, because no such horror stories exist."
If this distinction becomes lost, the GOP cannot win this fight. 

Today, conservatives sit at the table as the adults.  They were given this place of leadership because they promised to cut spending.  In light of the budget deficits, conservatives are making bold choices.  As many see it, Governor Walker’s fight is not against the unions, it’s a fight for fiscal sanity – a fight for the taxpayers.  In this fight, the GOP has the high road. 

But in taking on the private sector unions, the Republicans relinquish their lofty position.  Ceasing to be a budget battle for the taxpayers, it becomes seen as an attack on union households.  In swing states, the GOP cannot win this fight - there are too many average households that contain current or former union members.  In these states, the fight is against their daddy or their grandpa's union?  For good or bad, unions have a relevant history for many generations, even if union membership wasn't passed down to the current generation.  If Gov. Walker and other like-minded Governors are to be successful in their fight, it cannot be seen as a fight against the long history of the private unions in this country.

When the line between the PEUs and private sector unions is drawn clearly, the battleground becomes less hazy.  In the proper light, even long standing union members can see the difference between their battles with the business owners and the PEUs fight against the taxpayers.  The case for PEUs has always been illegitimate and this argument can prevail when it is not hidden behind the private unions.

In the media, the words of former AFL-CIO President George Meany and  President Franklin D. Roosevelt in stating their opposition to collective bargaining rights for government workers were coming to light.  But no sooner were the words beginning to gain traction that the GOP controlled legislature in Indiana rose up to shoot itself in the foot.  By making a push for Right to Work laws in the private sector, they effectively blurred the line without any outside help from the unions.  The momentum in Wisconsin began to falter, as the Democrats in Indiana went on the lam in a concerted move to equate the two very different battles.  Luckily for the GOP, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels wisely chose to cut off the Republican charge against the unions before it ever started.

If the GOP believes it can successfully take on all unions, they have misread their mandate.  While the Indiana lawmakers may claim they are doing what is best for Indiana, they and other state legislatures must understand that their actions are not happening in a vacuum.  As the average person sits down to watch the news, the bits and pieces from each state begin to form a whole.  Wisconsin , Ohio and New Jersey are battling public unions, while Missouri, Indiana and Michigan are battling for Right to Work.  The President says the Republicans are trying to bust the unions.  If a person weren't up on the issue, how would it appear?  Republicans can only win the debate against the PEUs by contrasting them to the private unions, but not while they appear to be attacking those same private unions in another state.

In many states, the so-called swing states, the GOP has risen to leadership only recently.  Here in my state of Missouri, Republicans lead the legislature, but we have a Democrat in the Governor's mansion.  My county voted for a Republican in the last Congressional race for the first time since I've been alive.  The GOP (thanks to the Tea Party) has made tremendous inroads into the local Democrat strongholds.  But those gains are tenuous today.  Moving Missouri into strong if not permanent red territory is within our grasp.  But with the wrong moves, Missouri could quickly swing back the other way.

In Jefferson City, GOP leaders are pushing Right To Work in order to capitalize while the opportunity presents itself.  But with Jay Nixon as a Governor, the only way forward is a ballot proposition.  As a union officer, I can say that the charge against Right to Work will be hard and heavy - it in fact has already begun.  The union media blitz will seek to overwhelm.  Winning a ballot initiative in Missouri is difficult enough.   Winning over the union machine may be a bridge too far.

In Missouri, ballot propositions turn into a Hatfield and McCoy type feud.  By the time the vote takes place, no one really knows what they're voting for and after it's over, it's not over.  The results of a hotly contested ballot initiative will soon be fought again during the next legislative session as the losing side "reloads".

In Missouri, riverboat gambling failed before it passed.  It passed with limits that no longer exist.  Recently, one of our riverboat casinos was built several blocks away from the river.  It's okay though, since the gaming floor is floating atop a small layer of water.  Those who congratulated themselves on winning the war against casinos two decades ago understand what I'm saying.  Risking the GOP gains in the state on a ballot proposition would be folly.

In early 2010, the House Democrats went through a remarkable set of events to pass President Obama's Health Care Reform law.  Today, many of them are no longer in Washington because of that vote.  Republicans now hold control of that chamber and with the gains expected in the next election cycle, they should regain control of the Senate also.  If a Republican should be elected President, the formal repeal of Obamacare would be the first order of business - even though it may have been found unconstitutional by the highest court at that point.  It would be a vivid display of what happens when one party seeks to over reach its mandate in a strict party line vote against the prevailing will of the people.  

Let the thought of such an image be burned into the back of the minds of statehouse Republicans as they risk their party's leadership for what may be a fleeting victory.  If they continue down this path, Right To Work will be the GOP's Obamacare.

* This post has been modified after it was originally published.  I accidentally included Ohio among the states seeking Right to Work laws, when it should have been listed as a state opposing public unions.  I have updated the post and it should be accurate now.

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