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What's Behind GOP Battle With Unions?

The economy — and how to improve it — has been at the center of the fight for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Ben Philpott of KUT News and the Tribune reports on how unions and their future play into the GOP rhetoric.

GOP PResidential hopefuls, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich before Lincoln-Douglas type debate on November 5th, 2011 The Woodlands, Texas

The way Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP candidates talk about unions, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re big, powerful and destroying the U.S. economy. But since peaking in the 1950s, union membership has been on the decline.

The U.S. has become a nonunion country, said University of Texas economics professor Dan Hamermesh.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

“At most a union state, so called, would be 20 to 23 percent unionized, in total. Texas may be 4 to 5 percent unionized," Hamermesh said.

Nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just under 12 percent of the U.S. workforce belongs to a union. That’s the new economy, said Veronica Stidvent, a former assistant secretary of labor. She said it has just become too hard for unions to deliver on compensation promises.

“When they’re promising increased benefits or increased wages to employees, in a globally competitive environments that’s getting harder and harder to deliver on, because businesses are finding it harder and harder to pass those costs off on to consumers," Stidvent said. 

Which has sent many historically union manufacturing jobs overseas or to so-called right-to-work states, like Texas, where most of the time a new plant does not unionize. So why are Republicans still in an uproar over this shrinking body of workers?

“Now the question is, what is the purpose of unions," Stidvent said, "and I think the controversy about them, particularly on the Republican side is, are they anything more than an arm of the Democratic Party?”

For union states in the Northeast and upper Midwest, even those with low union membership, the money and manpower unions offer Democratic candidates can be nearly invincible.

“Republicans in union states are probably tired of getting their butts kicked by unions on Election Day because it’s a very powerful force," said Dave Dulio, who chairs the political science department at Oakland University, just outside of Detroit.

So they’ve taken on unions on their home turf and tried to disable public-sector unions, like teachers, firefighters and state employees. Take Wisconsin and New Jersey's conservative-led push to end collective bargaining for teachers. State legislators are also using tight budgets as reasons for union busting, Hamermesh said.

“State budgets have lots of trouble right now. And given that labor is the overwhelming majority of all state government costs, this is where you have to cut back," Hamermesh said. "The question is, I don’t see why you can’t balance the budget by really tough negotiations. Breaking unions is not the only way to cut labor costs."

In Texas, there were few unions to bust, which is why some argue the state was so easily able to cut more than $5 billion from the public education budget — cuts that have led to thousands of teacher layoffs.

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