CHICAGO – The battle against Republican attempts to undermine trade union rights is spreading with Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state of Indiana in a bid to block anti-union legislation, and workers’ rights protests swelling in the US Midwest.
Trade unions are the biggest sources of financial and grass roots organizational support for Democrats and have long been a target of business-backed Republicans.
They have seen their power and membership rolls shrink as the manufacturing sector declined and as many operations shifted to anti-union southern states, and now just 12 percent of US workers are unionised.
Republicans are using their victories in November’s mid-term election to “pretty much destroy the last vestiges of labor in the Midwest,” said Jeffrey Keefe, a professor of labor economics at Rutgers University.
“They want to establish a permanent majority by destroying unions,” Keefe told AFP.
“They very well may be able to do that if they’re successful in getting through both the repeal of public sector collective bargaining rights and the ‘right-to-work’ legislation.”
Republicans have already been successful in blocking state employees from forming unions in 12 states.
Some 22 states have undermined unions with so-called “right-to-work” legislation which allow workers to collect union-won wages and benefits without having to join the union and pay dues.
These latest attempts in traditionally union-friendly states have met with stiff opposition and do not seem to have garnered widespread public support even though they are being implemented under the guise of necessary cuts in the face of steep deficits.
A Gallup poll published Wednesday found that 61 percent of Americans said they would oppose a bill taking away collective bargaining rights of public workers in order to balance the budget while 33 percent would support it.
Thousands of protesters have occupied the state Capitol in Wisconsin for eight days now in an attempt to block a bill that would strip public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights.
Governor Scott Walker insists he is unbowed by the protest — which reached a peak of 65,000 people on Saturday — but the bill’s passage was stalled by 14 Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois Thursday to deny the necessary legislative quorum.
Indiana Democrats followed suit on Tuesday in order to block a right-to-work bill, prompting a legislative shutdown, the Indy Star reported.
Governor Mitch Daniels — who eliminated collective bargaining rights for state employees unions in 2005 and has aspirations for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 — said he, unlike Walker, would not send state troopers out to round up the lawmakers.
He also told reporters that he believes this is not the right time “to have this very important and legitimate issue raised” but said he cannot force Republican lawmakers to drop the bill.
Thousands of protesters returned to the statehouse in Columbus, Ohio Thursday to protest a bill which would eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees.
But the state’s Democrats will not be fleeing Ohio to prevent the bill’s passage, senate Minority leader Capri Cafaro told CNN.
“That really isn’t possible for us,” she said as protesters held up signs demanding “stop the war on workers.”
“I commend my colleagues in other states, but right here, now we stand to try to continue this dialogue.”