23 February 2011

Republicans vs. Unions: the conflict spreads

The Republican assault on unions has spread to Indiana, where a "right to work" bill has been introduced that would make payment of union dues entirely voluntary. The idea is that in the remaining "closed shops" where all workers are unionized, someone shouldn't have to pay anyone for the privilege of working. As in Wisconsin, however, the motive of the Republican majority of state legislatures is clear enough. Unions donate money to Democrats and their right to do so was reaffirmed in the famous Citizens United decision. But their right to the money itself is subject to challenge. Republicans imagine themselves the defenders of those workers who don't see why they should subsidize a political party they oppose -- though I imagine they howl whenever anyone suggests withholding tax payments to the government to protest against war. In a democracy, minorities must abide by majority will except when the majority proposes to violate constitutionally guaranteed individual rights. The U.S. Constitution doesn't recognize a right not to subsidize opinions with which individuals disagree. That means you have no legal grounds for protest if a majority of elected representatives spend you tax dollars on the military, or on welfare checks. Nor does a unionized worker have any legal basis for claiming that his right of conscience has been violated if his union chooses to support a political party he dislikes. Partisanship rather than principle drives the Indiana legislation, and the other party has responded accordingly. Taking a page from the Wisconsin playbook, the Democratic minority fled the statehouse to deny Republicans the quorum necessary to pass the bill.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Democrats face a new challenge from an unexpected source. A newly-minted organization called the American Recall Coalition has filed papers seeking the recall of at least eight of the fourteen senators who fled Wisconsin to prevent passage of the legislation stripping public employee unions of most of their collective-bargaining rights. The American Recall Coalition is based in Utah, and is a front for an organization known as Americans Against Immigration Amnesty. The Wisconsin standoff has nothing to do with immigration, of course, but the Utah nativists nevertheless felt moved to intervene. They deem the Democrats' behavior a "direct threat to our Republic and political process" and an intolerable form of extortion complete with "ransom demands." But while outsiders can apparently instigate a recall process, it's up to Wisconsin citizens to sign the petitions. At the same time, of course, signatures are being collected by Democrats and their allies to recall Gov. Walker. It would be interesting to compare these extra-electoral votes, though they may not give us an accurate picture of Wisconsin sentiment. Recall is arguably at odds with the principles of representative government as they've evolved in the U.S., but it may be an appropriately democratic recourse in times of political crisis. To the extent that this is a conflict between labor unions and the Republican party which now serves as their boss or CEO in Wisconsin and Indiana, however, labor action may yet be the ultimate resolution of the struggle.

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