Republicans vs. The Unions

Scott Walker's attempt to crush the Wisconsin public employee unions may be the first wave in a fight to elect Republican governors in 2012.

Howard Fineman argues that the right fight in Wisconsin isn’t about the fate of the state’s public employees but rather “about which party controls governorships and, with them, the balance of power on the ground in the 2012 elections.”

Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party-tinged Republican, is the advance guard of a new GOP push to dismantle public-sector unions as an electoral force.

Last fall, GOP operatives hoped and expected to take away as many as 20 governorships from the Democrats. They ended up nabbing 12.

What happened? Well, according to postgame analysis by GOP strategists and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi — who chaired the Republican Governors Association in 2010 — the power and money of public-employee unions was the reason.

“We are never going to win most of these states until we can do something about those unions,” one key operative said at a Washington dinner in November. “They have so much incentive to work hard politically because they are, in effect, electing their own bosses — the Democrats who are going to pay them better and give them more benefits. And the Democrats have the incentive to be generous.”

This is how top Republicans see the matter: a vicious cycle of union-to-Democrat-to-union power that they are determined to break.

And there is a lot of money and manpower involved. In the 2010 cycle, the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees spent $87 million, making AFSCME the biggest single source of independent campaign spending last year — bigger than Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.

The manpower is even more important, though, especially that of AFSCME and the National Education Association. The public-employee troops are concentrated, in absolute numbers and by percentage, in 18 states. In California alone, there are 1.4 million government employees represented by unions, according to AFL-CIO numbers. In Illinois, it’s more than 400,000; in New York, 1.1 million.

The analysis is surely right: Republicans have long seen organized labor — and especially the powerful public employees unions — as a major impediment. And rightly so: They’ve enjoyed spending and manpower advantages without analogue on the Right.

But, while I’m sure other Republican governors are watching closely to see how things play out in Wisconsin, I’m more than a little skeptical of the idea that Scott Walker is taking one for the team here. It’s much more likely that he sees this as a way to consolidate his own political power. If he thought there was a good chance of this backfiring, he certainly wasn’t going to do it to help Republicans in California, Illinois, and New York.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Terrye says:

    It might just be that Walker actually thinks this is the right thing to do…for years the unions have gotten a sweet deal from the Democrats and we see the result of that in the state budgets. As is so often the case, they could have shown some restraint and avoided a lot of this themselves. But no, they asked for more and more at a time when the taxpayers had less and less. Their response? Tax the rich.

    I don’t think it is just about power. I think a lot of these Republicans are responding to a crisis when their Democratic counterparts failed to. In my little rural county every Democrat save 1 lost their job last November. This is a small place, there is no national plan here to take this county..the locals just got fed up with the over reaching, the constant demands for more money and more zoning and more government from these jokers and sent them packing.

  2. sam says:

    Never let a crisis go to waste, as the man said.

  3. Bob in Zion says:

    Walker’s fight is the right fight, at the right time, for the reasons stated above, and because the public just can’t afford the cost of current pension and medical packages.

    I look at it this way; if as a business owner, I told my employees they’d have to give me back $25.00 per payday as a condition of employment, and I could spend that any way I saw fit, and they had no choice, I’d be in court in a second.

    Yet in most states public employees have no choice but join the union, have the dues garnished from their wages, and have little recourse if they don’t agree with what the union spends the money on.

  4. Jay Dubbs says:


    I think you don’t actually understand the difference between management and a union.

  5. Ben Wolf says:


    Wisconsin’s public pension system is fully funded. Drop the “states can’t afford it” meme.

  6. Andyman says:


    “And rightly so: They’ve enjoyed spending and manpower advantages without analogue on the Right.”

    Sigh. Citizens United?

  7. Gerry W. says:

    Maybe the title should read: “Republicans vs. the middle class.”

  8. Andyman says:

    Or, to avoid redundancy, just “Republicans”.

    The very existence of a middle-class is an affront to people who still hold the worldview of capital owners and serfs. Who let some of those serfs get so uppity?

  9. James Joyner says:


    But Citizens United just happened. And it impacts unions as well as corporations. We’ve yet to see how it’ll impact the system.

  10. reid says:

    They’ve enjoyed spending and manpower advantages without analogue on the Right.

    Honest question here: Has the Right really been out-spent over the years? I find that hard to believe. It seems to me that they’ve always found ways to invest lots of money into political outcomes. Weren’t the various three-digit loophole organizations very popular in the 2004 and 2008 elections? For example, Swiftboat Veterans for “Truth”. With the very wealthy and corporations generally behind the Republicans, it’s hard to imagine them not out-spending the Democrats, especially now with Citizens United.

  11. Andyman says:


    Reid makes an important point I think. I feel like it was news when Democrats achieved even rough parity with Republicans in fundraising. The historical advantage has always been with Republicans, because of their natural constituencies in business and rich individuals. Labor is a wealthy natural constituency of the Democrats.

    It doesn’t make any more sense for the GOP to say that labor is an asymmetric Dem advantage than for Dems to complain that CEO’s tend to give to Republicans. Parties have their constituencies. And it’s a shame that the public employees of Wisconsin are being put through the ringer so that one party can kneecap the other.

  12. Terrye says:

    If I remember correctly, Obama spent more money on his presidential campaign than any other candidate ever has.

  13. Dean says:

    One of the most significant falsehoods of the Citizens United case is that it would unfairly benefit Republicans. However, according to, the law also allowed unions and other outside advocacy groups to increase their spending without limits.

  14. Liandro says:

    The people who pay the public unions are the taxpayers…including the middle class. I know that many liberals are desperate to argue this “Republicans hate the middle class” meme, but it just doesn’t hold water. You don’t get the majority (or plurality, in some cases) of votes by only appealing to the rich. I was born with little, was well in the negative after college, and worked plenty of minimum wage jobs on my way up the ladder. Now I own my own place I’ve never held a union job, ever. But I have helped pay plenty of union jobs via construction costs and taxes. If anything, the unions, and their lock on so much political influence in IL, have cost me, never helped me, as I solidified my spot in the middle class. I think there is a much better case to be made that public unions war on the middle class then there is that Republicans do.

    In IL, unions put people in office who will rig the system in favor of the unions. It is not the management vs. union forces of the private sector, it’s the we’ll-grease-your-palms-to-get-what-we-want nonsense that is similar to pay-to-play. Our Gov. Quinn was giving a guarantee to public workers of no pay cuts, no firings, etc., all to get re-elected…and locking in the future governor (and taxpayers) to his deal. Then the unions immediately turned around and endorsed him, plus money and manpower. How is that ethical? How is that advocating for the taxpayers that he is supposed to represent in union negotiations? Then those union members are forced to pay dues that go to political purposes that some of them might not even support.

    I’m neutral, even supportive at times, of private sector unions. But public unions have a blatant conflict of interest, and in IL at least they don’t even pretend to hide it.

  15. Gerry W. says:

    I am not a liberal although it looks like the republicans are making me more liberal. The public sector is the last stronghold for unions. We have seen how the middle class has been neglected by the right for years. We had the Bush tax cuts and every time he came to Ohio and said “free trade is good” we saw the factories close down. We saw the tax cuts to the rich as we saw our jobs go overseas. We live in a time when communism collapsed, countries opened up with cheap labor. Now from the right, they say more in tax cuts and free markets, and yet, what free markets tell me is that there is some 2 billion cheap laborers who want our jobs. From the right, all you hear is tax cuts, free markets, the constitution, and God and country. For the unemployed, hearing the robots on FOX, does not resinate.

    In short, what I have learned is that the world is geared to the rich. It has to be. They provide jobs, they have the money and the power. Today, all the more, you have to be more educated as the more mundane jobs left the country. The right, as well as the left, have given no answer in where our jobs will come from except from some wrongful notions of exports when some 57,000 factories are closed. We have seen the trickle down used to its fullest and it never trickled down. We have seen all the ideology and a president who said “stay the course” on our country and two wars. And he ran them into the ground as he ignored globalization and our infrastructure.

    There is plenty of pandering on the left and the right. The left has its unions and the right has its rich, the military industrial complex, gun rights, and religious nuts. Forcing union members to pay dues for the benefits that unions fight for is more right wing rhetoric from FOX to pin middle class people against middle class people. If Fox and all those that come on FOX had any answers, we would have upward movement for all people other than the rich. Bush did not provide the upward movement. So come up with some answers, instead of the same old rhetoric.