The Labor Prospect: Can Unions Sell Buyer’s Remorse in 2016?


Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker delivers his State of the State address at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Tuesday, January 19, 2016. 

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. 

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson

The Fate of the Union Political Machine

Can labor unions withstand huge losses of membership and money and retain political relevance?

That’s the multimillion-dollar question that organized labor is currently grappling with in several states as they try channel Republicans’ recent crippling legislative attacks into a political opportunity to elect Democrats in 2016’s state legislative races.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has unleashed a devastatingly effective anti-union offensive since he was first elected in 2010, beginning with his gutting of public-sector collective bargaining rights and ending (so far) with his passage of a right-to-work law. Union membership rates have fallen drastically, most noticeable among public-sector unions. With less dues money and lowered membership, Wisconsin unions’ political power has diminished.

As The New York Times reports, “the shift has shaken the order of election-year politics.” With half of all legislative seats in play, the 2016 election cycle is obviously important for the state’s Democratic Party. But the party is concerned that the absence of union dollars and volunteers backing local Democrats—which have proven critical in past elections—will make taking back the legislature more of an uphill battle.

In West Virginia, labor unions’ wounds are still open. The Republican-controlled statehouse just successfully rammed through an anti-union barrage that repealed the state’s prevailing wage law and instituted a right-to-work law. Conservative Republicans’ ascent to political power in 2014 was due to largely de-unionized white working-class voters, whose distaste for Obama and his anti-coal policies trickled down-ticket as they shifted allegiance from Democrats to Republicans in legislative races.

Today, internal polling indicates that even West Virginia union members’ political allegiance is a toss-up. But with the GOP’s recent attacks still fresh in the minds of workers, the Associated Press reports that “Democratic incumbents and candidates are hoping to run a buyer's remorse campaign to attract union voters and help reclaim some power in the Legislature.”

Similar state-level situations did not bode well for unions. In Indiana in 2012 and Michigan in 2014, Republicans maintained control of the statehouses and the governorships after passing right-to-work laws. But unions’ success at the local level will likely depend on the how the presidential election shakes out. Donald Trump has garnered a big chunk of white working-class support, and if he gets the GOP nomination, his candidacy could have problematic implications for down-ticket races in states of the post-industrial Midwest. 

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO, angered by Obama’s push to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is unleashing its political wrath on Democrats who helped fast-track the deal in Congress. As Politico reports, the labor federation is withholding political support from those Democrats who are up for re-election in 2016. In response, the White House has come to the aid of those who have been targeted by the AFL-CIO in an attempt to maintain the thin margin of Democratic support for the trade deal.

GOP’s Preemptive Priorities

Last week, Alabama was in the national spotlight as state Republicans passed a law that bans localities from passing minimum wage laws. The move was in direct response to the Birmingham City Council instituting a $10.10 minimum wage, which spurred movements in a handful of other Alabama cities. In Alabama and beyond, business associations spend millions and millions of dollars to support and lobby the pro-business Republicans who pass such preemption laws.

In an interview with NPR last week, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez had this to say about the Alabama GOP’s tactic: “I think, with all due respect to Representative Faulkner [who introduced the preemption law], that the people of Birmingham are in the better position to determine what's best for Birmingham. And I found it ironic—he said, I don't know if cities are equipped to analyze and determine what the appropriate minimum wage is or what those impacts are. With all due respect, I think the people of Birmingham are pretty smart. I think the minimum-wage workers who've been working a full-time job and getting their food at the food pantry, they're pretty smart.”

The Idaho Retailers Association is pushing similar legislation that would prohibit cities from passing minimum-wage laws higher than the federal minimum. Such business groups have mobilized in response to local minimum-wage efforts in places like McCall, a small resort town that just narrowly voted down a minimum-wage initiative last year. The GOP has control of both chambers and the governorship, suggesting that the legislation will soon be law.

And lobbyists are getting quite good at finding loopholes around existing laws to protect local power. As the Arizona Daily Star explains, a 2006 voter-approved minimum-wage law allows cities to set their own wages. But the Arizona Restaurant Association helped House Republicans craft legislation that defines “wages” strictly as cash compensation, and not “fringe benefits” like health insurance, sick pay, maternity leave, and vacation pay. The bill, which the House will vote on this week, will specifically ban cities from passing laws that mandate paid sick leave. With a GOP supermajority in Arizona, too, the bill seems likely to pass.


The Obama administration is pushing to expand access to paid sick leave to more than 800,000 federal contract workers.

Foreign workers who come to the U.S. on temporary visas have become a crucial part of many industries—from agriculture to hospitality. But worker abuses run rampant in the underground market for migrant labor.

As oil prices plummet, wage theft complaints against American oil companies are surging.

A growing number of attorneys are beginning to see their work as traditional wage labor, and are fighting for their rights accordingly.

At the Prospect…

Justin Miller details how business groups spent nearly $3 million in Alabama statehouse races, then lobbied for a minimum-wage preemption law. Read more…

Harold Meyerson explains how the white working class’s troubling support for Donald Trump has largely been driven by deunionization. Read more…

Rachel Cohen talks with economist Marshall Steinbaum about how the “skills gap” narrative is a farce. Read more…

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