Sunday, November 6, 2011

Coordinated attack on unions started right after 2010 elections

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As recent news articles detail the stagnant job market, high unemployment and excessive executive compensation and multi-million dollar federal tax refunds for fortune 500 companies, many in the middle class are still wondering why they keep getting squeezed.

The current economic situation here in Minnesota is directly tied to the leadership change in the Legislature. The middle class, as well as the unions that defend it and are members of it, are not supported by the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. Unfortunately, what we are experiencing in Minnesota is happening all around the country. The attack on unions and the middle class started soon after the 2010 mid-term elections.

National Coordinated Effort

 At a Republican Governors' Association meeting in San Diego right after the election, several elected officials identified unions as the enemy and claimed that union compensation and benefits were the reason for deficits in so many states.

Scott Walker of Wisconsin, New Jersey’s Chris Christie joined Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty in stepping up the attacks. All of them echoed that public employees were “over benefitted and overpaid” or were the “haves while the taxpaying public are the have-nots.” It did not matter to the GOP whether their statements were accurate; they were energized and had their target in sight.
Union busting was in full force and yet no one really knew of the level of what was in store for public employees.

In Ohio and Wisconsin, Republican governors had favorable legislatures that allowed them to destroy collective bargaining rights. In Wisconsin, there was such an uproar that democratic senators left the state to try and stop Walker’s attack. Although ultimately Walker won, his victory was delayed. During that delay, the country was able to see the influence of conservative businessmen and a little known non-profit that helped shape Walker’s union busting agenda.

While state democrats took refuge across the state lines in Illinois, Governor Walker took a call and unwittingly thought he was chatting with David Koch of Koch Industries. Koch is a billionaire whose conservative, pro-business PAC gave Walker’s campaign for governor $46,000 in 2010. It turns out Walker actually was talking to a blogger who impersonated Koch, recorded the very frank conversation and exposed the cozy relationship between the governor and the billionaire.

David and his brother Charles supported Walker and his anti-union agenda. But there was more, The Koch Brothers also financially supported another group that was growing in influence, The American Legislative Exchange Council.

The American Legislative Exchange Council

 More than 30 years ago, a small group of state legislators and conservative policy advocates met in Chicago to implement a common vision: they wanted to create “a nonpartisan, membership association for state lawmakers who shared a belief in limited government, free markets, federalism and individual liberty.” As a result of that meeting in September 1973, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, was formed.

According to background information on ALEC, the organization brings together “state lawmakers and business people with the goal of substantively creating policy … in addition to state lawmakers, ALEC membership consists of about 300 corporate, foundation and other private sector members.” As you might assume, a majority of the state lawmakers involved with ALEC are Republican.

Funding of ALEC

 ALEC is supported by corporate America. Here is a partial listing of companies and trade associations that support ALEC: American Nuclear Energy Council, American Petroleum Institute, Coors Brewing Company, Texaco, Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturing of America, Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, VISA, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Johnson and Johnson, Kraft Foods, Inc., Wal-Mart, Intuit, State Farm Insurance, United Parcel Service (UPS), the National Rifle Association, Koch Industries, Amway and others.

According to public information provided by the organization People for the American Way, in 2007 ALEC had a budget of approximately $7.8 million in revenue and $3.1 million in assets. Corporate membership fees ranged between $5,000 and $50,000 with additional fees to participate in certain task forces.

For decades, ALEC has quietly produced business friendly legislation for lawmakers all around the country. ALEC has no real counterpart on the left. Its closest equivalent, the Progressive States Network, was founded in 2005, has about a quarter of ALEC’s funding and produces only a small amount of model legislation.

This year, ALEC published a “Budget Tool Kit” which offered model legislation for cutting government services and targeting public employees. The mission of the task force that drafted the budget tool kit was “to explore policy solutions that reduce excessive government spending, lower the overall tax burden, enhance the transparency of government operations and promote free-market fiscal policies.”

According to an article titled, ALEC Exposed, in The Nation, “ALEC priorities for the 2011 session included bills to privatize education, break unions, deregulate major industries, pass voter id laws and more. In states across the country, they succeeded with stacks of new laws signed by GOP governors like Ohio’s John Kasich and Scott Walker, both ALEC alums.”

ALEC growing influence goes hand in hand with the union bashing currently going on throughout the nation. Corporate America sees an opportunity to severely weaken or eliminate unions under the guise of creating government efficiency and ALEC is poised to work with their members who are state lawmakers to make this happen. In 2011, Minnesota public employees unions were targeted by the new GOP majorities in the House and Senate, many who are ALEC members.

State Representative Mary Kiffmeyer, former Minnesota Secretary of State, is ALEC’s state chair. She acknowledged that there are about 30 Minnesota legislators who are members of ALEC. Kiffmeyer also organized an ALEC training for Republican lawmakers during the last session.
As a result of ALEC’s influence, in the 2011 legislative session, there were fifty bills introduced to eliminate collective bargaining in Minnesota. Many of the bills were cookie cutter templates from ALEC’s took kit and were introduced during the legislative session. One piece of legislation, if passed, would have actually cost the state more money.

Here is some of the more egregious legislation sponsored by Minnesota GOP legislators who are members of ALEC:
  • Pension reform, sponsored by Senator Alice Hoffman, would have force public employees to pay 3 percent more for their pensions while reducing the state’s match by 3 percent.
    • Pension reform was cited as a major tool to improve government efficiency in the 2011 Budget Tool Kit.
    • The bill would have cost the state $68.5 million annually and would have negated some of the $6 billion in savings made by the 2010 pension reform bill.
    • Even though this bill would cost Minnesota money, it is still alive and could re-appear next session.
  • Outsourcing state services, cutting the state workforce by 15 percent, mandated salary freeze, Health Savings Account high deductible plan – were all shepherded through Senator Mike Parry’s State Government Finance Committee Omnibus Bill and sent to Governor Dayton.
    • All the provisions in this bill are supported by ALEC.
    • Dayton vetoed the omnibus bill and ensured that none of these provisions were included in the government shutdown agreement.
    • All these provisions are alive as long as the GOP maintains its leadership majority in the legislature.
Throughout the session, MAPE staff and members worked very hard to kill these bills. By attending and testifying at committee hearings, holding rallies, issuing press statements and releases, distributing desk drops, writing and calling legislators, and working with the Dayton Administration, MAPE played a major role in the defeat of the many bills aimed at eliminating public employee collective bargaining rights.

MAPE Fights Back

 According to Michael Keegan, a columnist for the Huffington Post, the real story behind the protests and union bashing in Wisconsin, “…has little to do, as Gov. Walker would have you believe, with a state-level push for fiscal responsibility. It has everything to do with the changing dynamics of money and influence in national politics. Pro-corporate politicians never liked the power wield by unionized workers.”

Keegan added, “Gov. Walker’s attempt to obliterate Wisconsin public employee unions…could be the first of many attempts across the country to permanently wipe out what are the strongest political opponents of the newly empowered corporate force in American politics.

In Minnesota, as we already know, Governor Dayton’s support of unions and public employees kept us from Wisconsin’s fate. Public employees also had the support of the majority of Minnesotans as poll after poll revealed. Unfortunately, the Legislature remained unmoved by poll data, so as the government faced a shutdown, MAPE and its allies took action.

MAPE and AFSCME unveiled the “We want to work for Minnesota” campaign, which was designed to use earned media, paid media and grassroots organizing to call for a budget solution of taxing the wealthiest in our state so that public employees could continue to work for Minnesotans. MAPE members also participated in “ring of fire” events where they would door knock or attend a town hall meeting to call out legislators who did not support a reasonable budget solution.

In the end, state government did shut down, but once a budget solution was reached, many union busting legislative proposals did not make it into law. And, in the aftermath, polling showed that the public clearly viewed public employees in a positive light.

Although the battle was won in the short term, the war against public employees and unions will still continue.

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