Skip to content

The myth of RI labor’s State House clout

June 1, 2012

The cliché that organized labor controls the General Assembly has become one of the biggest fallacies in Rhode Island politics. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains.

Conservative Republicans, some business and media leaders and more than a few Democrats these days say that Rhode Island’s economic troubles stem from organized labor’s political influence.  If only that were true. As George Nee, president of the state AFL-CIO laments, “we’ve taken a lot of bruises lately.’’

The state budget that is slated for a Smith Hill vote this week is a case in point. Labor has lobbied vigorously for a state income tax surcharge on Rhode Islanders who earn $250,000 or more a year. The idea has merit; after years of cutting taxes for the wealthy while at the same time allowing communities to hike taxes on the poor by taxing cars worth less than $6,000, lawmakers are now being asked to reverse course.

Yet, Nee says he “would be shocked’’ if the budget required the rich to share a bit more to help our state’s foundering cities and towns. House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed are not on board with the tax on the wealthy but are in favor of increasing taxes on shoes and clothing items that cost $250 or more. (Can’t wait for those $249 clothing sales).

On a buffet of other issues, organized labor has taken a beating at the State House that it supposedly, in the infamous words of former Gov. Donald Carcieri, has a “stranglehold over.’’

Labor was, naturally, opposed to the cuts in pension benefits for its members that were enacted in last year’s special Assembly pension overhaul session. The unions lost that one. More recently, labor wanted the state Board of Governors for Higher Education and Gov. Lincoln Chafee to ratify negotiated contracts that gave raises to faculty members at the University of Rhode Island.

The state reneged and the unions were forced to appeal to the State Labor Board.

The voter identification measure that requires a photo i.d. for everyone who votes in Rhode Island elections was opposed by labor. But it won approval by a legislature  that is dominated by Democrats, the party that purports to back labor’s agenda.

The lack of support for labor at the State House is nothing  new. Since the mid 1980s, organized labor has lost more Smith Hill battles than it has won. Our state was one of two in the nation that allowed strikers to collect unemployment benefits. That ended when Republican Edward DiPrete won the governorship in 1984 and the Democratic-controlled Assembly supported his campaign to repeal strikers benefits.

In the 1990s, the business community and Republicans got behind four-year terms for governors and state general officers. Union leaders lobbied to keep the two year terms. Again, labor lost.

The Assembly once had 100 House members and 50 senators. Republicans and elements in the business community joined forces on a campaign to slice the size of the legislature and increase lawmakers’ salaries, asserting that would attract more competition for seats.

Labor organized against the Assembly downsizing. It lost that one too.

One of  Carcieri’s major initiatives was to cut taxes for the wealthy. His argument was that it would lead to business expansion in Rhode Island. Now, we have one of the    nation’s highest unemployment rates, so that obviously hasn’t happened.

Yet the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies against just about any tax increase that would hike the burden on business or the wealthy, has prevailed over labor in every debate on tax policy for years now.

There was a time when labor had outsize clout at the State House. That would have been 1972, not 2012. You only have to roll back the calendar to chart labor’s downhill slide.

Union membership, especially in the private sector, is at an all-time low. In Rhode Island, where more than a third of workers were unionized in the middle of the 20th Century, less than 20 percent carry union cards today.

While times have changed, public perceptions have not. Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association-Rhode Island, one of the state’s two big teacher unions, laments the way Rhode Islanders buy the chamber of commerce argument about labor’s political sway.

Walsh’s union commissioned a public opinion poll that showed 70 percent of state voters think labor has too much Smith Hill influence.

“Everybody thinks we run the place. That’s a myth, unfortunately,’’ says a rueful Walsh.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at  6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Mister Guy permalink
    June 1, 2012 9:49 pm

    “In the 1990s, the business community and Republicans got behind four-year terms for governors and state general officers. Union leaders lobbied to keep the two year terms. Again, labor lost.”

    They should have lost. Two-year terms for statewide, executive branch govt. positions just perpetuates endless political campaigning.

    “The Assembly once had 100 House members and 50 senators. Republicans and elements in the business community joined forces on a campaign to slice the size of the legislature and increase lawmakers’ salaries, asserting that would attract more competition for seats.

    Labor organized against the Assembly downsizing. It lost that one too.”

    They should have lost that one as well. RI’s State Legislature is too large even now. There’s basically no reasons at all to even have a RI State Senate IMHO.

  2. Miss Alanius permalink
    June 1, 2012 10:03 pm

    You hit the nail on the head with this commentary. All one has to see is that the pension bill passed last November only had 17 lawmakers say NO…All the rest of the lawmakers said yes to the pension reform bill.

  3. Craig OConnor permalink
    June 2, 2012 1:18 pm

    Another big labor loss was the defeat of legislation allowing child care workers to organize a union and collectively bargain.

    Part of the problem is that RI public seems to think just because it’s Dem

  4. Craig OConnor permalink
    June 2, 2012 1:22 pm

    Another big labor loss was the defeat of legislation allowing child care workers to organize a union and collectively bargain.

    Part of the problem is that RI public seems to think just because it’s Dems who have majority, that labor must be in power. Our Dems far too often act like Republicans, and we need to say that more often. This article is a case in point – the tax cuts for the wealthy elite were passed by Democrats – Fox, Paiva-Weed, Murphy etc. The tax cuts were supported by Carcieri, but they belong to the Democrats – just as labors losses, cuts to social programs, and ballooning property taxes are their legacy as well.

  5. Dave permalink
    June 4, 2012 6:08 am

    Worst state in job creation; worst state to retire in; horrible education; no funding for URI.. ALL BECAUSE OF UNIONS AND PENSIONS… they have put RI into a coffin and sealed it shut. This General Assembly did nothing… but raise taxes on dog grooming, car washes and suits that working people might buy costing over $250. l. They did not see fit to lift even ONE unfunded mandate off the struggling cities and towns in this hellhole. Disgraceful. VOTE THEM OUT.. every damn one of them.

  6. Newporter permalink
    June 5, 2012 3:55 am

    Scott,

    I’m curious to know how you resolve our recent experience tackling our massively burdensome public pension liabilities with your assertion that labor is somehow just a conservative straw man.

    Isn’t our current political discussion – you know, that one about our cities and towns under the threat of insolvency due to the promises made over the years to unions – testament enough to labor’s heavy influence on the state?

    Your argument seems rather thin.

    To begin, you justify your premise of labor’s decline by pointing to some well-reasoned and broadly supported good-government reform measures like downsizing the GA and extending terms for the executive branch. If these are poor policy decisions that you oppose, then please say so.

    Do you think we should go back to two-year terms? Do you think the legislature should be expanded? If so, I would wager a guess that the majority of people in the state would disagree with you. More likely, though, it seems that you might actually just be using this line of argument as a means to propping up an otherwise hollow premise (one which has been argued far too many times by the unions themselves for you not to know better)

    As far as all those “rich people who aren’t paying their fair share,” let’s not forget that they’re paying to support the same union infrastructure which you claim is crumbling.

    Rhode Island is at an inflection point. We can either continue to wager our economy on past parochialisms, or we can position ourselves to compete with our regional neighbors. The latter requires that we become more nimble; that we provide more incentives for businesses to locate and operate here; and more reasons for families to want to stay here.

    Dismissing the state’s labor unions as a marginal player on Smith Hill is a dangerous proposition for taxpayers and a poor attempt at reporting.

    Yes, they may have been on the losing end of a few votes in recent years. But please, let’s not lull the citizenry into thinking that somehow our public sector unions are getting the short end of the stick. If only the state’s small business owners had COLAs and lifetime health insurance to rely on…

    Remember, as Kevin Spacey said in The Usual Suspects: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making the world think he didn’t exist.

    • Mister Guy permalink
      June 9, 2012 3:40 am

      “Isn’t our current political discussion – you know, that one about our cities and towns under the threat of insolvency due to the promises made over the years to unions – testament enough to labor’s heavy influence on the state?”

      Nope. It’s due mostly to cuts in RI state aid to cities & towns. Are there reforms that are needed to both state & local public systems? Sure, but those changes need to be done legally through collective bargaining, not illegally from the top down.

      “As far as all those ‘rich people who aren’t paying their fair share,’ let’s not forget that they’re paying to support the same union infrastructure which you claim is crumbling.”

      Taxes were cut (at both the state & federal level) mostly for rich people in the hopes that the economy would boom. Where are the jobs??

      “But please, let’s not lull the citizenry into thinking that somehow our public sector unions are getting the short end of the stick. If only the state’s small business owners had COLAs and lifetime health insurance to rely on”

      …and the needless race to the bottom continues. There’s basically no such thing as a defined benefit retirement plan that doesn’t have at least the option for a COLA. To not have a COLA in a defined benefit plan is just asking current retirees to commit slow-motion financial suicide. Most public retirees don’t get “lifetime health insurance” either.

Trackbacks

  1. RI Progress Report: Netroots Preview, Myth of Union Power, Abortion Politics, 38 Studios and Scott Walker
  2. Solidarity, for now? The decline of unions, and the costs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: