State of Disunion: The growing conflict between public and private labor
by Steven Malanga, City Journal, Winter, 2014 (excerpts)
Over the past few years, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has enraged public-sector unions by closing failing public schools and calling for pension reform. The head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, went so far as to offer a local labor official $1 million in union campaign support to take on Emanuel, up for reelection in February. But private unions have a different view of the mayor. Building-trades groups like the Construction and General Laborers’ District Council have benefited from his infrastructure spending and have donated heavily to his reelection, while the hotel workers’ union, Unite Here, has openly endorsed him for boosting Chicago tourism. “There’s a lot of support I have from working men and women,” Emanuel retorted last year when asked about the public-sector-union opposition to his mayoralty.
Chicago’s labor rift isn’t unique. The goals of public and private unions are diverging. Government employees, determined to hold on to their pay and benefits, are fighting to defeat political leaders and candidates advocating fiscal reforms, such as limits on tax increases. Private unions, by contrast, see the nation’s sluggish economic growth as a threat to their members and are increasingly encouraging politicians to focus on private-sector job creation. The disastrous debut of Obamacare and the ever-tighter alliances between public unions and the Democratic Party’s antigrowth factions—especially environmentalists—have further alienated private-sector labor leaders. These disputes have roiled Democratic primaries and even pushed some labor groups into the arms of Republican candidates. The face-off among labor groups could have significant long-term consequences if it becomes a struggle for the future of the Democratic Party—and judging by the battles among labor groups in last year’s elections, that struggle may be under way.
A struggling economy and blown-out state and local budgets, burdened with heavy government-worker costs, have brought to the surface the old enmity between private and public unions. Nowhere has this been more visible than in New Jersey. In 2006, as a budget crisis rocked the state, Democratic state senator Stephen Sweeney, an ironworkers’-union official, declared that public employees should take a 15 percent pay cut to prevent looming tax hikes. “My guys haven’t gotten a raise in two years because their entire raise went to their health and pension costs,” Sweeney complained. “New Jersey has a government that we can’t afford any longer.” A union war of words ensued, with one public-sector labor leader likening Sweeney to a “right-wing Republican.”
Tensions simmered for years, in part because then-governor Jon Corzine, also a Democrat, refused to ask government workers for significant concessions, even as New Jersey taxes soared. In 2011, Sweeney and other Democratic state legislators who also were private-union officials voted for a bill, promoted by new Republican governor Chris Christie, that scaled back government-employee benefits. Later that year, the state’s AFL-CIO refused to endorse the private-union officials for reelection. Representatives of building-trades unions stalked out of the AFL-CIO endorsement meeting in protest.
The controversy reverberated in New Jersey’s 2013 gubernatorial race. Some two dozen private unions endorsed Christie for reelection, shunning his Democratic opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono; public-sector unions aggressively opposed Christie. Private-union leaders liked the way Christie had restrained tax increases and restarted job growth. In its endorsement of the governor, one New Jersey local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers noted that, between 2001 and 2009, the number of hours its members worked had declined more than 50 percent, to 3 million—but during Christie’s tenure had rebounded by about 1.5 million annual hours. “Our men love him,” the local’s business manager, Patrick Delle Cava, said. A CNN exit poll on the election, which Christie won with 60 percent of the vote, showed that he did well among voters in union households, capturing 46 percent of their ballots.
Similar labor conflicts erupted in 2014 races in several states beset by fiscal woes. The Democratic gubernatorial primary in debt-ravaged Rhode Island became particularly venomous. As state treasurer, Gina Raimondo had won a national reputation engineering an ambitious overhaul of government pensions in 2011, leading her to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nod. She squared off against two primary foes, both banking on support from government-worker unions: Providence mayor Angel Taveras; and Clay Pell, grandson of former U.S. senator Claiborne Pell. The state’s largest government union, the Rhode Island affiliate of AFSCME, endorsed Taveras, while the powerful state chapter of the National Education Association backed Pell. But Raimondo won the primary, with help from more than a dozen blue-collar labor groups, chief among them the Rhode Island Building Trades Council, which loved her idea of an infrastructure bank to spur investment in a state with the nation’s third-highest jobless rate. Their allegiance proved crucial when Taveras’s campaign charged that Raimondo’s pension overhaul had benefited Wall Street money managers but harmed government workers. “Stop lying about Gina,” the head of the building-trades group said in a statement.
The labor brawling in Rhode Island went beyond the gubernatorial primaries. In the general election, the AFL-CIO refused to endorse Raimondo or her running mate, lieutenant governor candidate Daniel McKee, because he was a proponent of charter schools—anathema to the state’s teachers’ union. The unions were furious that a national organization favoring charter schools, 50CAN Action Fund Inc., had run a pro-McKee ad blitz in the Democratic primary, helping him beat their preferred candidate. Raimondo ultimately won but with only 41 percent of the vote in a four-way race, undercutting her mandate to govern.
Public-sector unions were victorious in the internecine labor war in Hawaii, resulting in the unprecedented defeat of a sitting governor in the state’s 2014 Democratic primary. Neil Abercrombie had won Hawaii’s 2010 gubernatorial election with 58 percent of the vote, thanks in part to endorsements from key public unions, including the Hawaii State Teachers Association. But after he took office, several of his policies angered government labor groups, especially teachers. First, Abercrombie reduced teachers’ pay 5 percent after contract negotiations hit an impasse in 2011. Then, he floated a proposal to extend free preschool to thousands of Hawaiian four-year-olds but included in his plan public funds for private preschools to offer some of the services—a major no-no for the teachers’ union. The controversy rocked the 2014 Hawaii Democratic Party state convention, with Abercrombie foes sponsoring a divisive resolution, which failed narrowly, calling for public money to go only to public schools. The teachers’ union backed State Senator David Ige in his insurgent campaign against Abercrombie.
Meantime, however, some of the state’s most significant private unions, which make up 15 percent of its private labor force, endorsed the incumbent. The largest private union in the island state, the 18,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union, cited Abercrombie’s support for Hawaii’s tourism and shipping industries in giving him its seal of approval. It wasn’t enough. In a state with 55 percent of government workers unionized, Abercrombie went down to defeat, with Ige pulling 66 percent of the primary vote and winning the general election in November....
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