Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio made headlines in 2011 with their fights against unions in their states. Walker won but was weakened; Kasich lost. Scarcely three days into the new year, Indiana is carrying this tradition into the new year with a debate over a right-to-work law that may reach the Statehouse by February. The Times reports:
The thunderclouds are gathering first here in Indiana. The leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature say that when the legislative session opens on Wednesday, their No. 1 priority will be to push through a business-friendly piece of legislation known as a right-to-work law. […]Right-to-work is also a potent political symbol that carries serious financial consequences for unions. Corporations view such laws as an important sign that a state has policies friendly to business. Labor leaders say that allowing workers to opt out of paying any money to the union that represents them weakens unions’ finances, bargaining clout and political power.Organized labor has vowed to fight the Indiana bill, which it says would turn the state into the “Mississippi of the Midwest.” If the legislation passes, Indiana would become the first state to have such a law within the traditional manufacturing belt, a union stronghold that stretches from the Midwest to New England. Right-to-work laws exist in 22 states, almost all in the South and West, with Oklahoma the most recent to pass one, in 2001.
The blue model battles continue to rage across the country, and nowhere have they been more dramatic or contentious than in the union-heavy, declining states of the rust belt. While the Indiana fight is a bit different from those in nearby Wisconsin and Ohio — public sector and private sector unions pose very different problems, right-to-work isn’t a union-killer, Mitch Daniels has a steadier hand than the neighboring governors and Indiana has a streak of Southern conservatism its neighbors lack — the debate over the power of unions and the future of jobs in the state remains the focal point. One thing is clear, however — the fight over the blue model and the future of organized labor will only get more intense in 2012.Look for labor to throw everything it has into the 2012 elections at the national level. Loss of the White House, with Republican control of the Senate looking likely, would deal the labor movement a staggering blow.The overall pattern is almost fifty years old and suggests that while labor wins some high profile battles, it is losing the war. That doesn’t have to happen, but the labor movement (like many other American institutions) will have to reinvent itself in the 21st century to survive. So far, its leaders are fighting fundamental change as hard as they are fighting the GOP.