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Have the WI Protests Changed Americans' Political Perspectives?

The spread of what might be called "the Madison effect" may be changing the political contours of America.

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Meanwhile, the union-busting movement continues to spread. Iowa's House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, passed its own law in March gutting collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. The measure, nearly identical to Wisconsin's, would have made it to the desk of Republican Governor Terry Branstad, who backed the bill, and into law had the state's Democrat-controlled Senate not killed it on the spot.

In early March, Idaho's legislature voted to eliminate most bargaining rights for public school teachers, not to mention tossing out tenure and seniority. Two separate anti-union bills are wending their way through the Tennessee legislature -- one in the state House that resembles Idaho's, and another in the Senate that aims to outlaw collective bargaining for teachers altogether.

And now comes Alaska, one of the latest states to join the fight.  There, on March 21st, a Republican state legislator introduced a measure nearly identical to Wisconsin's that would strip most public-sector unions of the right to collectively bargain on health-care and retirement benefits. By one estimate, more than 20 state legislatures are considering bills to limit collective bargaining for unions.

Not to be forgotten is Indiana, where Democrats in the legislature's lower chamber camped out beyond state lines for more than a month (as had Wisconsin Senate Democrats before them) to protest multiple pieces of legislation that would hurt unions and public-education funding. They returned to Indianapolis on Monday to cheers from supporters, their protest having killed a bill that would have made Indiana a "right to work" state while undermining support for other anti-union measures.

Even if, in the end, its lawmakers don't any pass anti-union legislation, Indiana is already illustrative of what happens when collective bargaining is wiped out. With a flick of his pen, Republican Governor Mitch Daniels banned it for state employees in 2005 by executive order. The result, as the New York Times reported, was significant savings for the state, but skyrocketing health insurance payments and a pay freeze for state workers. Management fired more experienced employees who would have had seniority under old union rules. And union membership among state workers dwindled by 90%, with one former labor activist claiming workers, fearing repercussions from their bosses, were afraid to pay union dues.

Not that unions can't exist in states without collective bargaining rights. In Arizona and Texas, for instance, unions still operate, even though both are heavily conservative "right-to-work" states, which means employees can opt out of union membership but still enjoy the wage increases and benefits negotiated by unions. Still, in those states, organized labor's influence pales when compared to that of unions in Michigan or Wisconsin.

Then there are the political ramifications. Elected officials in each of these embattled states denied that any political motives lay behind their bills, but that’s obviously not true. Public-sector unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees are a pillar of support for the left wing of the Democratic Party.  Knock out the unions, and you effectively "defund" that Party, as my colleague Kevin Drum put it recently.

Despite their pleas of ignorance, Republicans in Wisconsin, Iowa, Tennessee, Ohio, and every other state where legislation of this type is being considered understand perfectly well the damage their bills will inflict on their political opponents. As the top Republican in the Wisconsin Senate said, "If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a… much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin."

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