Labor unions, stung by an unexpected setback in Michigan, where Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed a right-to-work law Tuesday limiting their ability to collect dues, are eyeing a large-scale counteroffensive against the conservative state leaders who have slashed away at union power since the 2010 midterm elections.
For national labor groups, the upcoming gubernatorial elections in 2013 and 2014 may be a greater test of their political swat than even the 2012 presidential race. Democrats view unions as having played a key role in boosting turnout for President Barack Obama and other downballot candidates, especially in Midwestern battlegrounds such as Ohio and Michigan.
It’s those states — and others like them — that represent the next front of labor’s national campaign agenda. Strategists in the Democratic and labor communities identified a half-dozen major battlegrounds that elected Republican chief executives and new GOP legislators in 2010 where they believe union muscle ought to be able to power a comeback over the next cycle.
“We’re just going to have to be prepared to fight back like never before,” said Lee Saunders, president of the public-sector labor giant AFSCME. “You look at Ohio, where you have a Republican governor and Republicans control the House and Senate, the same in Wisconsin, and we’re just going to have to be prepared. Not only the labor unions in those states, but we’re going to have to work very hard with our community partners. This is going to be a long-term battle.”
The AFL-CIO has already built up sizable campaign operations in Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada and Wisconsin – the site of a titanic 2012 gubernatorial recall fight – in addition to Ohio and Michigan, union officials said. The labor giant deployed new staff to those states about a year ago as part of what AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka has called the “permanent infrastructure” of national unions.
The idea was to bolster union-friendly candidates – including Obama – in 2012, and then plow on through to the 2014 cycle when any number of labor foes are on the ballot.
As this week’s fight in Michigan shows, the central flashpoint for the union rights debate remains the Midwest. Labor leaders have vowed to make Snyder regret signing the “right to work” law he approved this week. Beyond Michigan, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett have appeared vulnerable in polling.
“We consider 2014 to be absolutely crucial,” said AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer, pointing to Snyder’s anti-union push as a case in point: “These are politicians who aren’t even listening to the results of the election. They have an agenda to not just destroy unions, but many of them go after immigrants. All of them go after voting rights. And giving them another four-year term is going to be horrific for the workers and citizens in those states.”
While “there are governor’s races, like [Rick] Scott in Florida, that are not in the Midwest that are extraordinarily important,” Podhorzer said, “the big flip in 2010 occurred in the Midwest. If you wanted to somewhat arbitrarily say which region is going to see the most action, it’s going to be the Midwest.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called the upcoming cycle a chance for labor organizations to rebound after a near-death experience in the wake of 2010.
“Going into 2013, there are many more pro-worker, pro-public legislation majorities and governors in places like New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Oregon,” she said. “There were a lot more wins the night of Nov. , 2012, than I think anyone predicted, and it’s not as if the right didn’t attempt to eliminate us. We had become an endangered species — two years of a fight for our survival.”
If unions aim to go on offense in the coming cycle, labor leaders in many states will be operating from a weaker position than several years ago, before Republican governors took office and began working actively to restrain labor’s electoral clout.
Wisconsin is the prime example: While unions intend to target Gov. Scott Walker for defeat, the Republican has already enacted a law ending collective bargaining for most government employees and beat back a recall campaign in which labor groups spent millions of dollars.
In Michigan, unions hope to undo the right-to-work law — they call it a “right to work for less” law — through a referendum, which may or may not be legally viable. But there, too, unions will be working to reclaim ground that labor has lost rather than expanding their reach into new territory.
And it’s unclear how influential union groups can be in the 2013 off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia. In the Garden State, Gov. Chris Christie has clashed with labor in the past but now enjoys daunting approval ratings. Virginia is a less union-heavy state, though labor strategists hope they can make a difference in a highly competitive governor’s race.
Mike Schrimpf, the communications director for the Republican Governors Association, pointed to spring’s Wisconsin recall election as a cautionary tale for unions hoping to reverse the consequences of the 2010 campaign.
“No region in the country has seen a stronger turnaround than the industrial Midwest since Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania switched from Democrat to Republican governors in 2010,” Schrimpf said. “After years of job losses, tax hikes and multibillion-dollar deficits under Democratic governors, these states are now adding jobs and the state budgets are balanced while taxes are held in line or even reduced thanks to the leadership provided by Republican governors. As Wisconsin made abundantly clear in June, voters prefer to continue their states’ progress under Republican governors than return to the failed Democratic policies that preceded them.”
Neither Republicans nor Democrats and unions are approaching 2014 as an exact rerun of the last midterm campaign. On the Republican side, some state executives have softened their rhetoric about labor as another election year approaches, with Snyder as a notable exception.
Kasich, who signed a law to overhaul state employees’ union rights only to see it invalidated later at the ballot box, said this week that he does not consider right-to-work legislation a priority in Ohio. In New Jersey, Christie cut a merit-pay deal with teachers unions — a favorite target of his — and went so far as to appear with Weingarten to trumpet the compromise.
“You see Christie, Kasich and others moving toward the middle. I think [Snyder] is an anomaly,” Weingarten said.
Saunders agreed that Christie has “moderated some of his language” of late, but said AFSCME would continue to monitor the race.
Democrats, meanwhile, say labor issues are an important part of the overall debate that will frame the cycle — but they’re not the beginning and end of the state-level issue agenda.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said he expected candidates to benefit from a sense across the country that Republicans have targeted working people. In the Buckeye State, Democrats and unions invalidated the Kasich-backed law, known as Senate Bill 5, that would have ended collective bargaining for government workers. They hope a negative impression lingers, but they’re not counting on that issue on its own to defeat the governor.
“There is an impact from SB 5. Now, is it burning red-hot? No, absolutely not. But it is something that continues to remind voters who were impacted in 2011 what the principles of John Kasich are,” Redfern said, suggesting the Michigan uproar helps that cause: “It reminds Ohioans of what John Kasich’s core principles really are. The reason he’s not pursuing right to work in Ohio is that he was burned once.”
Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, said the 2012 cycle showed how unions could “in very specific states, sort of disproportionately [outperform], particularly amongst white men, the electorate in general.”
“Economic issues clearly led the way and I think the candidates, but also the efforts of supporting organizations like unions, framed the elections,” Stern said.
For labor groups, union rights aren’t the only item on the 2014 agenda. But governors who have crossed the line on that issue have vaulted immediately to the top of the target list.
Eddie Vale, a strategist for the AFL-CIO super PAC Workers’ Voice, said that by signing the anti-union measure, Snyder would effectively “sign away his reelection in 2014.”
“All across the country, including Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, working families will be making their voices heard in those governor’s races,” Vale said.