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Shifting Political Power: From Citizens United to Wisconsin

Let’s be clear: Governor Scott Walker’s proposed cuts are not about balancing the state budget. It’s a power play aimed at cutting the heart out of what remains of the once vibrant labor movement. A war waged against unionized workers ultimately harms all workers, and the overt strategy to squelch collective bargaining exposes the deep resentment that monied interests hold towards worker rights everywhere.

The public sector unions in Wisconsin have already agreed to make sacrifices, including significant wage cuts and increased contributions to the pension fund. But these economic concessions are not enough for Governor Walker. That’s because his true goal is to permanently cripple the unions by defunding their organizational base and stripping away their right to collective bargaining.

Sadly, Wisconsin is just one of many front lines in this fight. In the wake of the November elections, anti-union measures are on the move in Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere.

To understand the true significance of this assault on unions, one must remember that unions do far more than negotiate benefits for its own workers. Unions have fought to strengthen public policies that benefit all Americans, both unionized and non-unionized. We have unions to thank for the weekend and the 40-hour workweek. More recently, unions fought to strengthen minimum wage laws, worker safety protections, and public safety nets. And unions, much to the dismay of corporate power brokers, help provide a powerful mechanism for voter turnout that keeps our democracy strong.

Unions have long understood that “speaking truth to power” is not enough. It takes a strong, organized movement to affect real change in our society. That has become especially important in the face of rising corporate power and, more recently, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Today, unions represent one of the few organized forces providing a counterbalance to the role of corporate money and power in our democracy. As the fight to limit corporate power through campaign finance reform and other such policies heats up, unions will undoubtedly play a crucial role.

From the 1940s through the mid-1970s, Americans saw an unprecedented period of economic growth, and more importantly, a period when income growth was shared proportionally across all major income groups. This was not an accident or a force of nature. It was the result of a deliberate set of public policies—including a highly progressive tax system, strong worker protections, and large-scale public investments in our shared infrastructure to name a few. But these laws didn’t just magically appear. They were created in part through the political organizing of strong, well-organized unions at a time when one out of three American workers were unionized.

Unions have long understood that “speaking truth to power” is not enough. It takes a strong, organized movement to affect real change in our society.

Beginning in the 1970s, well-heeled corporations began to organize and work to undo these earlier labor victories. In their new book “Winner-Take-All Politics,” Pierson and Hacker document this dramatic power shift. In 1968, only 100 corporations had public affairs offices in Washington. That grew to 500 by 1978. Only 175 firms had registered lobbyist in 1971. That grew to 2,500 by 1982. Mirroring this rise of corporate power was the realignment and dramatic growth of the Chamber and the National Federation of Independent Businesses as a powerful political force.

As corporate influence was on the rise, the once powerful labor unions that helped grow America’s strong middle class were under attack. In some cases, this was a frontal assault as powerful forces worked to undo union victories. In other cases, it was a dodge as corporations moved their operations to anti-union states, cutting the political legs out from under the unions.

As this fierce class war has waged on for the past 30 years, hard-working Americans have consistently been on the losing end. Many progressives point to Reagan as the impetus for this power shift, but Reagan was simply riding a tidal wave of corporate power that was laid in the decade before he took office. To the victor go the spoils indeed. Since this great power shift has taken place, we’ve seen tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, and the gutting of the public sector with profound implications for our society. Income inequality is now at its highest level since 1928, just before the Great Depression.

After nearly four decades of attack, only about 12 percent of American workers are now unionized. In the public sector however, the unionization rate remains at 36 percent. In fact, over half of all unionized workers are public sector employees today. This brings us full circle back to Wisconsin. As corporate influence continues to grow, Governor Walker is seeking to limit the power of working people by removing one of the most powerful tools in our cache: unions and their organizing power. If he succeeds, it will be deeply troubling for the health of our democracy.

If we as a nation are serious about renewing America’s commitment to a strong and vibrant middle class, we must look to reform the political landscape that created the winner-take-all economy. As the nation’s eyes remain on Wisconsin, it is in each or our interests—unionized and non-unionized, private sector and public sector workers—to stand in solidarity with our fellow Americans on the front lines in Wisconsin. The health of our democracy depends on it.

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