The Right Has a New Playbook to Crush Unions and Enshrine Corporate Power

The American Legislative Exchange Council is pushing a spate of anti-worker bills in states across the country—the latest in the group’s onslaught on collective bargaining rights.

Juliana Broad

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference on February 05, 2024 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference on February 05, 2024 in Miami Beach, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

State lawmakers seeking to dismantle unions and implement anti-worker laws have just been handed a new state-by-state roadmap by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate-funded bill mill popular with Republican legislators.

Although ALEC claims that its proffered labor reforms are designed to protect worker freedom and flexibility,” its attacks on workers over the past 50 years have made it harder for them to organize, harder for local governments to support decent-paying jobs, and easier on big business. 

Those attacks, bankrolled by Koch Industries and right-wing donors such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, are motivated as much by the desire to protect corporate bottom lines as by the determination to eviscerate a key supporter of the Democratic Party: labor unions.

ALEC has paid particular attention to public sector unions by peddling model bills that prohibit paycheck deductions for dues, mandate high membership thresholds, and introduce automatic decertification, among other anti-labor measures. 

The first edition of ALEC’s labor policy handbook, which was published in 2019, came on the heels of the Supreme Court’s momentous 2018 Janus ruling, which radically upended the lives of American workers by maintaining that public sector employees do not have to pay union dues as a condition of employment. 

The second edition, published this year, adds three model bills to expand the scope of ALEC’s key anti-labor policies. In addition to its evergreen model right-to-work” and union-busting bills, the updated edition includes bills that target independent contractors and occupational licensing. Two of these address interstate occupation licenses, with one setting up a process for reviewing all current and proposed occupational licenses. 

One of ALEC’s most recent anti-worker policies, which was introduced at last summer’s annual meeting, blacklists any company that voluntarily recognizes a union to keep it from qualifying for state economic development incentives. However, this policy is not included in the newly released handbook.

Since 2019, ALEC’s anti-labor priorities — including its state-level right-to-work and anti-union bills — have had a significant impact on workers and workplaces. With the imprimatur of Governor Ron DeSantis ®, the Florida legislature passed some of the most regressive labor legislation in recent history last year. The Florida bill — which is highlighted as noteworthy legislation” in the new handbook — empowered the state to decertify public sector unions, prohibit automatic deductions for union dues, mandate universal language on union membership cards, and impose considerable annual reporting requirements, all key items on ALEC’s anti-worker wishlist. A recent investigation found that since the law passed, more than 42,000 public sector workers in Florida have lost their union representation.

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A Louisiana bill outright banning collective bargaining for that state’s public sector workers is currently making its way through the state legislature. It comes amidst a flurry of other anti-union bills which feature some of the most regressive features of ALEC’s model bills: banning the automatic deduction of dues, requiring the regular recertification of existing bargaining units, and all but outlawing political lobbying.

Permanent precarity

The new model bills included in the second edition focus on promulgating precarious employment through independent contracting laws and occupational licensing reforms.

These have been introduced in at least seven states this legislative session: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. 

ALEC claims that its model bill addressing self-employment in the gig economy — known as the Uniform Worker Classification Act — ensures that the 80% of workers who prefer their independent contractor status are able to keep it, rather than being forced into traditional employment models.”

Big business groups have long sought to maintain the status quo of workplace insecurity faced by the vast majority of gig workers. 

It is in the best interests of this State, workers, and businesses for there to be certainty regarding the legal status of workers and their applicable rights and obligations,” the model bill states.

ALEC’s advocacy arm, ALEC Action, worked to oppose the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021. Increasing barriers to independent contractor status would deprive millions the flexibility and entrepreneurial opportunity available through innovations such as the gig’ economy,” an open letter organized by ALEC Action stated.

California’s Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), signed into law in 2019 by Governor Gavin Newsom (D), has required many employers to reclassify independent contractors as employees. Backed by Julie Su, then the state’s labor secretary, it drew widespread criticism from big business and conservative think tanks. A joint friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court by Charles Koch’s right-wing advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) along with the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), New Jobs America, and the Independent Institute challenged AB5, but the court declined to hear their case.

Four years later, when President Biden nominated Su to join his cabinet as labor secretary, her earlier role in promoting gig worker protections in California doomed her candidacy.

Despite the Right’s concerted and coordinated effort to fund anti-worker groups such as ALEC, the tides may be turning, with a national resurgence of interest in unionizing and big wins last year for auto workers at GM and Ford, along with writers in Hollywood. In 2023, Michigan overturned its right-to-work law, which allowed free-riders in all private sector workplaces. And even outside of true-blue states, which regularly implement stronger labor laws, purple states like Nevada are making it easier for workers to have a voice at their workplaces.

This story was produced via the Center for Media and Democracy.

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