The GOP’s Alinskyite Public Employee Union Strategy

Over the weekend, a House Republican majority failed to vote in an amendment to its budget resolution which would have reinstituted a ban on project labor agreements (PLA’s) in federally-funded government construction work – a vote we noted here on the Hayride yesterday. The GOP’s top economic and budget hawk Paul Ryan was among the 26 Republicans who voted in favor of the unions.

In Indiana yesterday, Gov. Mitch Daniels, who heretofore had been generating mostly favorable publicity as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, balked at his Republican state legislature’s desire to vote in a right-to-work statute. Indiana Democrats had turned “fleebagger” at the prospect of losing such a vote, and Daniels called them back to the capitol with the promise that no such bill would pass his desk. The Republican House Speaker then announced the bill wouldn’t make the floor.

In Ohio, a study of right-to-work states vs. union states has informed a legislative move to consider making the Buckeye State a right-to-work state. But Gov. John Kasich, who is next in line to experience the statehouse union assault his colleague Scott Walker is currently dealing with in Wisconsin, has remained silent.

And in Wisconsin, the walkout of the state’s Democrat Senators has opened the door for the state legislature to pass right-to-work legislation largely without opposition. Conservative activists are suggesting the GOP-led legislature put a bill to do exactly that on the floor. So far, nobody has taken the bait – even though Walker has supported right-to-work in his past life as a state legislator.

Two other new Republican governors elected with large Tea Party support and reputations as solid conservatives, Florida’s Rick Scott and Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, have largely demurred on the question of right-to-work and collective bargaining.

“My belief is as long as people know what they’re doing, collective bargaining is fine,” Scott said in an interview with a local Tallahassee radio station on Tuesday.

And in Pennsylvania, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, said earlier this week that while the governor would be willing to sign a right-to-work bill “that’s not a top priority of his right now.”

Instead, spokesman Kevin Harley said Corbett plans to try to cut the size of government without taking away the rights of state employees to organize.

“We’ll begin negotiations with the public-sector unions and anticipate we’ll conduct those in good faith,” Harley told The New York Times over the weekend.

What’s going on here? Are we seeing an example of GOP politicians wilting under pressure?

Perhaps so. After all, nationally some 88 percent of the American workforce is non-union. A huge majority. And the private-sector workforce is even more non-union; 93.1 percent to be exact.

The numbers indicate that non-union states and employers have been far more successful than their union counterparts. One doesn’t have to look much farther than the auto industry to recognize a difference; foreign carmakers have been operating non-union plants in places like Mississippi and South Carolina for a couple of decades, and finding those plants to be highly profitable and successful. That serves as a contrast to the Big Three carmakers, where bankruptcy, plant closings and bailouts have been the highlights amid rapidly declining employment and economic decline in traditional factory towns like Flint and Detroit.

So amid a Republican resurgence driven by small-government and free-market principles, you’d think an all-out assault on unions – a key Democrat constituency and the primary donor of campaign funds to that party – would be a no-brainer. And yet Daniels, Scott, Corbett, Ryan and even Walker, it appears, aren’t willing to go all the way.

Those guys – and lots of other Republicans, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie perhaps most prominent among them – have been enthusiastic in taking the fight to public employee unions. But not unions in general.

What we’re seeing here, while it might well be driven by an overabundance of caution and/or cowardice, is strategic. It’s an example of the Republican Party taking a lesson or two from Barack Obama’s Saul Alinsky playbook, Rules For Radicals. Perhaps primary in that manual’s exhortations is Rule 11:

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.

The rule doesn’t perfectly lend itself to this fight, but the principle it embodies does – namely, be specific as to the identity of your enemies so as to bring your firepower on as small a target as possible. Daniels gives union autoworkers and electricians a break in Indiana by kiboshing right-to-work, but chief on his agenda is a sweeping educational reform package including vouchers, charter schools and teacher accountability measures. Right-to-work is the big-ticket item which sent Indiana’s Senate Democrats to convalescence in next-door Illinois, but their demands for a prospective concern actually have more to do with the assault the governor has planned against the power of the teachers’ unions.

The personalization of the target is largely across the board. Jonah Goldberg’s column in National Review today declaring that public employee unions ought to be busted given the crass political nature of their birth and the different nature of the labor-management relationship in the public sector is an excellent primer on the philosophical case to treat the two species of unions differently. The political case, however, is more mathematic; there are now more union members in the public sector than the private, and the public side is growing while the latter is shrinking. It’s easier to peel off private-sector union workers, not to mention it’s been done before; Ronald Reagan’s “Reagan Democrats” were made up in no small part from union households in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and Indiana.

But will it work? It might.

Key to splitting private-sector union support from the public-sector unions will be driving a wedge between union members and union leadership. In November, pollster Frank Luntz surveyed 760 union members on both sides of the public-private divide and found that by a 59-27 margin the members would kick out the bosses if they could do so by secret ballot. And by a huge margin, the union members disapproved of their dues being used for political contributions – typically 98 percent of which go to Democrats. Part of the reason for the disapproval of those contributions is that, according to AFL-CIO executive vice-president Linda Chavez-Thompson, some 40 percent of the membership either votes Republican or will consider doing so. That 40 percent, we can comfortably surmise though there aren’t any readily available numbers to support this, is mostly made up of the private-sector workers. This is axiomatic to an extent; if you work at the DMV or you’re a public-school teacher you’re unlikely to support cuts to the size of government but there is little reason why a steelworker or forklift operator would be interested in paying higher taxes to support public pensions other than union solidarity.

But the top leadership in the union movement, the people the members generally hate, is critically invested in union solidarity. Chavez-Thompson and her boss Richard Trumka at AFL-CIO, for example, preside over unions on both sides of the public-private divide. AFL-CIO unions include AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of School Administrators and AFGE, along with the Screen Actors Guild, the International Association of Machinists, the Federation of Professional Athletes, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Longshoremen’s Association and the United Mine Workers of America, for example.

Those disparate groups really don’t have a lot in common, frankly, and yet they’re all under Trumka’s leadership. He promotes a straight-line Hard Left Democrat agenda which almost anyone will tell you doesn’t particularly benefit a lot of the members of his private-sector unions. Is green energy a good agenda for UMWA or the United Auto Workers, for example? Of course not. And it certainly isn’t a good agenda for the Teamsters – and yet there was that union’s president Jimmy Hoffa pushing radical environmentalism and opposing domestic oil production.

So when Christie rails against union bosses but says nice things about individual firemen and teachers, it’s the same message Daniels is sending by punting on right-to-work. We’re not anti-union, these guys are trying to say, but the bosses who control both those unions and the Democrat politicians we’re fighting are the problem. And since we’re broke we can’t afford these lavish benefits for public employees, particularly when the working man, who might be in a union, can’t afford to pay any more taxes.

The response to these provocations by the Left indicates they see the threat. What will be worth watching is whether continued attempts to hold the coalition of private and public sector unions together will prove successful, or whether the GOP’s strategy of peeling off the private-sector workers will bear fruit.

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