Romney’s 9-Point Plan to Annihilate Unions

What Mitt Romney and the GOP would like to do to labor.

Jeremy Gantz

If elected, Mitt Romney would be the labor movement's archenemy. (Gage Skidmore/ Flickr / Creative Commons)

Except for one quick swipe at teach­ers unions by Mitt Rom­ney on Mon­day, nei­ther of the major-par­ty pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates — nor their run­ning mates — men­tioned work­ers’ rights, col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing or orga­nized labor dur­ing any of the four pres­i­den­tial-cam­paign debates.

Usu­al­ly, any­thing hap­pen­ing in the swing-state-rich Mid­west gets scrupu­lous atten­tion from pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Giv­en the momen­tous labor bat­tles that played out across Mid­west­ern polit­i­cal stages over the last few years, as GOP law­mak­ers waged attacks on unions in Wis­con­sin, Indi­ana and Ohio, the omis­sions were sur­pris­ing. But then again, giv­en unions’ declin­ing size and pre­sumed lack of clout among unde­cid­ed vot­ers in swing states, per­haps they weren’t.

When unions have popped up dur­ing the gen­er­al elec­tion sea­son, it was as ene­mies of progress. Romney’s ref­er­ence to union­ized teach­ers as an obsta­cle to reform dur­ing the for­eign pol­i­cy debate, of all places, was so quick you prob­a­bly missed it. In fact, he would like to evis­cer­ate them. (More on that below.)

Labor lead­ers have paint­ed a stark pic­ture of what might lie ahead should Rom­ney win. A work­er vot­ing for Mitt Rom­ney is like a chick­en vot­ing for Colonel Sanders,” Richard Trum­ka told Work­ing In These Times dur­ing an AFL-CIO ral­ly in August. Rom­ney wants to anni­hi­late orga­nized labor as we know it,” Team­sters Pres­i­dent James Hof­fa said in September. 

Over­heat­ed rhetoric is a hall­mark of every cam­paign sea­son. But the GOP’s and Romney’s posi­tions on labor and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing — from sup­port for a fed­er­al union-weak­en­ing right-to-work” law to elim­i­nat­ing most pub­lic-sec­tor bar­gain­ing rights — are gen­uine­ly to the right of where they were even four years ago. With unions now account­ing for less than 12 per­cent of the work­force (down from 36 per­cent in the 1950s), it is now pos­si­ble to imag­ine a coun­try devoid of labor pow­er, replaced by a cor­po­rate vision of employ­ee empow­er­ment and work­place flex­i­bil­i­ty,” as the GOP 2012 plat­form puts it.

That plat­form rep­re­sents a new lev­el of aggres­sion toward the labor move­ment, says Kate Bron­fen­bren­ner, Direc­tor of Labor Edu­ca­tion Research at the Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty School of Indus­tri­al and Labor Rela­tions. If it were enact­ed, it won’t destroy the labor move­ment, but it’s seri­ous,” she says.

If Rom­ney and the GOP’s vision some­how came to pass, through a Repub­li­can sweep of the White House and Capi­tol Hill, what would be left of orga­nized labor? In short: very lit­tle. It would be far worse than the Gov. Walker’s ide­al Wis­con­sin or Gov. Kasich’s ide­al Ohio. 

In two sen­tences, Romney’s offi­cial jobs and eco­nom­ic plan, titled Believe in Amer­i­ca,” acknowl­edges what unions have accom­plished in the last cen­tu­ry. Over the years, unions have made extra­or­di­nar­i­ly impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can soci­ety,” it reads. Many of the pro­tec­tions and ben­e­fits enjoyed by work­ers in the 21st cen­tu­ry are the result of sac­ri­fices and strug­gles and hard-won bat­tles fought by unions in an ear­li­er era.”

The GOP’s plat­form doesn’t even both­er — in fact, it doesn’t once men­tion col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing or work­ers’ rights. The doc­u­ments brand unions as dan­ger­ous arti­facts of a bygone era run by stooges,” boss­es” and elites” that stand in the way of a more pros­per­ous future.

Rom­ney’s plan soon switch­es tone, dark­ly refer­ring to unions as a force with­in … that would under­mine our key com­pet­i­tive advan­tage.” There are even union CEOs” in Rom­ney’s world — sure­ly the only type of CEO he dis­likes. Unions are anti­quat­ed and expen­sive, and Amer­i­can work­ers are smart enough to know that. What else could explain the pre­cip­i­tous drop in union mem­ber­ship dur­ing the last 40 years? (No men­tion, of course, of the weak­en­ing of labor laws dur­ing that time, and the increas­ing brazen­ness of employ­ers in delay­ing elec­tions and intim­i­dat­ing pro-union workers).

None of this rhetoric is sur­pris­ing. But the total­i­ty of what the par­ty and its cur­rent stan­dard bear­er now call for is breath­tak­ing. Step one would be to restore Bush-era standards:

1. Change fed­er­al law to guar­an­tee that all pre-elec­tion cam­paigns last at least 30 days. (This would­n’t change the sta­tus quo, since the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board­’s rule to speed up union elec­tions is stuck in court.)

2. Change fed­er­al law to explic­it­ly pro­tect the right of busi­ness own­ers to allo­cate their cap­i­tal as they see fit.” This is a ref­er­ence to the NLR­B’s law­suit against Boe­ing for vio­lat­ing fed­er­al law by open­ing a plant in South Car­oli­na in retal­i­a­tion for work­ers in Wash­ing­ton going on strike. (The NLRB dropped the case in Decem­ber 2011 after the work­ers’ union struck a deal with Boe­ing that secures their jobs and rais­es wages.)

3. End project labor agree­ments” on fed­er­al­ly fund­ed con­struc­tion projects, which require a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment and the use of union labor. These have been a polit­i­cal foot­ball: George W. Bush for­bid them; one of Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s first actions was an exec­u­tive order rein­stat­ing them.

So far, noth­ing move­ment-shat­ter­ing. This would basi­cal­ly result in a Bush-era NLRB, which is like­ly any­way once Rom­ney is able to make appoint­ments to the fed­er­al agency charged with enforc­ing labor law. But Rom­ney would also like to:

4. Change fed­er­al law to guar­an­tee” the secret bal­lot in every union cer­ti­fi­ca­tion elec­tion. In oth­er words, employ­ers would not have the option of rec­og­niz­ing a union via card check,” as they cur­rent­ly can.

5. Repeal, on day one,” the fed­er­al law requir­ing pre­vail­ing wages on all fed­er­al pub­lic works projects. This is the Davis-Bacon Act, signed into law by Her­bert Hoover and briefly sus­pend­ed by George W. Bush in areas hit by Hur­ri­cane Katrina.

6. Pro­hib­it the use of union funds auto­mat­i­cal­ly deduct­ed from work­er pay­checks for polit­i­cal pur­pos­es. This is what ALEC-backed pay­check pro­tec­tion” pro­vi­sions attempt to do. 

7. Ban teach­ers unions out­right from donat­ing to polit­i­cal cam­paigns. (He’s fine with cor­po­ra­tions donat­ing as much as they’d like, how­ev­er.)

8. Pass a nation­al right-to-work” law, which would allow all work­ers ben­e­fit­ing from union agree­ments and ser­vices to avoid pay­ing dues. Rom­ney was opposed to this in 2008, but now sup­ports such a law, in line with the new GOP platform.

9. Strip near­ly all bar­gain­ing rights from pub­lic work­ers, à la the mea­sures signed by gov­er­nors John Kasich and Scott Walk­er (and sub­se­quent­ly repealed by Ohio vot­ers and part­ly reject­ed by Wis­con­sin judges, respec­tive­ly). Both laws also banned auto­mat­ic dues deduc­tions and made union cer­ti­fi­ca­tion more difficult. 

Tak­en as a whole, this would be a blue­print for a union-free Amer­i­ca. Still, it does­n’t go quite as far as the GOP plat­form, which would like to add a final nail to labor’s cof­fin by assert­ing that no gov­ern­ment at any lev­el should be dues col­lec­tor for a union.” (The plat­form also calls for the with­draw­al of fed­er­al and state reg­u­la­tions pro­tect­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of low paid and vul­ner­a­ble employ­ees in trib­al workplaces.)

Nev­er­the­less, two data points sug­gest how bad­ly Rom­ney’s anti-union agen­da would shrink the size and scope of Amer­i­ca’s unions.

First: Since the anti-union law went into effect in Wis­con­sin, AFSCME’s mem­ber­ship has since fall­en by more than 50 per­cent in the state.

Sec­ond: In 2011, 20 of the 25 states with the low­est union­iza­tion rates were right-to-work” states, accord­ing to the Labor Depart­ment. North Car­oli­na, where 2.9 per­cent of work­ers are union mem­bers, has the low­est rate.

Should Rom­ney’s agen­da come to pass, labor would have to scram­ble to adapt. A nation­al right-to-work” law would make auto­mat­ic dues deduc­tion all-impor­tant, says Cor­nel­l’s Bron­fen­bren­ner, whose research on employ­er intim­i­da­tion dur­ing union elec­tions helped form the basis of the NLR­B’s thwart­ed elec­tion speed-up rule. If you could keep auto­mat­ic dues deduc­tion, it would­n’t destroy the move­ment,” she says. In high [union] den­si­ty areas, dues deduc­tion would be like­ly to continue.”

The ques­tion is, will work­ers get demor­al­ized, or will they do what they need to do — fight back and be smart about it? The only way [the move­men­t’s] going to come back is if work­ers and orga­ni­za­tions go out there and orga­nize,” says Bron­fen­bren­ner, not­ing the recent Wal­mart work­ers strike and car­washeros” vic­to­ries. We’re not going to get labor law reform in this country.”

Three years after the Employ­ee Free Choice Act failed in the Sen­ate and four years after can­di­date Oba­ma cam­paigned on its pas­sage, that much is clear. Almost as sober­ing is the fact that this time around, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma need­n’t make any spe­cif­ic promis­es to the labor move­ment. Just like the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, he mere­ly has to make clear that he won’t try to destroy it.

Jere­my Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/​Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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