Labor unions are celebrating the downfall of two of their worst enemies this week: Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bruce Rauner of Illinois. The pair of Republicans lost their re-election bids to Democrats, ending Walker’s gubernatorial stint after two terms and Rauner’s after one.
The AFL-CIO could barely contain its glee over Walker’s defeat, with the labor federation’s president releasing a six-word dagger of a statement: “Scott Walker was a national disgrace.”
Meanwhile, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees touted Rauner’s loss. “Rauner’s attacks on the freedom of working families have backfired,” the union’s president proclaimed.
While organized labor may revel in the outcomes, their jubilation has its limits. After all, unions may have won this week’s big game, but only after Walker and Rauner forever changed the rules by which the game is played.
Long after Walker leaves the governor’s mansion, Wisconsin’s politics will be shaped by Act 10. That’s the 2011 law Walker pushed through the GOP-controlled legislature that stripped collective-bargaining rights from most government employees. The law has severely reduced public-sector union membership, weakening the state’s labor movement and, by extension, progressive political causes in the state.
After kneecapping public-sector unions, Walker and his Republican allies had an easy time enacting a right-to-work law for the Wisconsin private sector just four years later. Such laws bar contracts between unions and employers that require all the workers in a particular bargaining unit to help cover the costs of representation. The laws can lead to what unions derisively call “free riding”: workers avoiding such representation costs while enjoying the benefits of a union-negotiated contract.
Walker’s successful battles to degrade organized labor made him a darling of the conservative movement and inspired other Republican governors to take a hard line on unions.
A key piece of Rauner’s legacy will be the Supreme Court case Janus v AFSCME. In that monumental 5-4 decision, issued in June, the justices ruled that public-sector workers cannot be required to pay fees to the unions that represent them, deeming such “fair share” fees to be compelled speech.
The ruling applied right-to-work to the entire U.S. public sector, giving government workers the chance to opt out of paying fees to unions that nonetheless must bargain on their behalf.
Rauner originally brought that case as governor, though a judge later ruled he did not have standing since he was not represented by a union. In stepped Mark Janus, the Illinois health department employee represented by AFSCME who ultimately won the case.
The Janus decision has already cost public-sector unions thousands of previously dues-paying members. It has also forced them to divert time and money to organize the workers they already represent, rather than putting all their resources into organizing new workplaces. It is arguably the worst Supreme Court ruling for unions in decades.
Act 10 and Janus are not temporary setbacks for unions. They structurally weaken them by making it harder to retain members. And by doing so the laws politically benefit Republicans, who loathe the influence of unions and the ground game they lend to Democrats in elections.
When Donald Trump won Wisconsin in the 2016 election ― one of the critical states that ultimately delivered him the presidency ― the anti-union and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist drew a direct line back to Act 10. He attributed Trump’s win in Wisconsin to unions’ diminished capacity in the state.
As for the political effects of right-to-work, a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that such laws can drive down the share of Democratic votes in a presidential election by 3.5 percent.
The good news for Wisconsin unions is that the state will now be under divided government. Republicans are retaining control of both chambers of the statehouse, but the new governor ― union ally Tony Evers ― will wield veto power.
But there is no undoing Act 10 or the right-to-work law, at least anytime soon, said Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee.
“Obviously, if the legislature is Republican and the governor is Democratic, it puts a full stop on any further type of anti-worker legislation,” Secunda said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t put things back to where they were.”
Union membership in the U.S. has been trending downward for decades. When the Labor Department first started tracking membership in the early 1980′s, more than 20 percent of U.S. workers belonged to unions. As of last year, that rate was down to 10.7 percent.
The drop in Wisconsin has been precipitous under Walker, from more than 14 percent in 2010 (the year he was first elected) to around eight percent in 2015, where it has hovered since.
With a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, unions in Wisconsin will at least have a check on any legislation aimed at weakening them further. But they still find themselves in the same position as unions in so many other states, where maintaining the status quo counts as its own kind of victory.