Image: Massive crowds gather to see the 14 democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Walker as crowds continue to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison
Darren Hauck  /  Reuters
Crowds gather at the Wisconsin State Capitol Saturday to see returning Democratic senators who'd left the state to try to prevent a vote on the bill proposed by Gov. Scott Walker to curb unions'  bargaining power.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/15/2011 2:38:22 PM ET 2011-03-15T18:38:22

Organized labor was once so powerful that President Franklin Roosevelt told his party’s national chairman to “Clear it with Sidney” —  labor leader Sidney Hillman — before announcing Harry Truman as FDR's running mate at the 1944 Democratic convention.

Labor remains a potent force nearly 70 years later.

In the 2008 elections, three major unions, representing public school teachers, government workers, and service workers, contributed more than $100 million to candidates for federal and state office, with most of it being spent on state races and almost all of it for Democrats.

This figure does not include the millions of dollars unions spent on contacting members to get them to vote, conducting phone-banking for candidates, and completing other important campaign chores.

But the law Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed Friday, which curtails unions’ power to bargain and to collect union dues, may be a turning point in labor’s political role.

Here are questions that unions face in the wake of the Wisconsin law:

Are other Republican legislatures and governors being inspired by the outcome in Wisconsin to try to impose limits on collective bargaining for public sector workers? Or will Walker’s dismal poll numbers deter them?

“I think GOP governors could be inspired by the outcome in Wisconsin, but also be very wary and aware that setting the tone of the debate is critical,” said Saul Anuzis, a veteran Republican consultant and former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich is supporting a bill, passed two weeks ago by the state Senate, to curb public employee unions’ power, although it doesn’t go as far as the Wisconsin law, according to University of Akron political scientist John Green. 

“Ohio Republicans are certainly mindful of the situation in Wisconsin. My sense is that Republicans will handle this issue with care and may pursue it in a more moderate form.”

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Green said the Ohio bill “was more moderate than the Wisconsin bill from the beginning, was amended in the state Senate and may be amended again in the state House. Such efforts could reduce somewhat the level of public criticism. But Ohio Republicans still see virtue in the effort and are expecting considerable opposition from labor and their allies.”

In Iowa last week, the Republican-majority state assembly passed a bill to allow public employees to become “free agent employees” by rejecting representation by a union.

The bill also would change the rules on binding arbitration in disputes between public employee unions and state and local governments by allowing an arbitrator to impose a settlement different from what either labor or management had offered. Unions have lobbied against the bill while the National Federation of Independent Business and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry have lobbied for it.                                                    

The legislation would “dramatically change the balance of power” and “dramatically change the bargaining process in the state,” said State Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal. He added “it’s exceedingly unlikely” that the bill will be debated or voted on in the state Senate where the Democrats have a majority.

Slideshow: Protests in Wisconsin (on this page)

Meanwhile in Michigan, the Republican-controlled legislature is poised to enact a bill supported by the new Republican governor, Rick Snyder, that would expand the state’s power over fiscally distressed local governments and give emergency financial managers the power to end contracts with government employee unions. “That’s another bill that would have a tremendous impact on public sector workers” said Naomi Walker, director of state government relations for the AFL-CIO labor confederation.

Will new limits on collective bargaining in Wisconsin (and possibly in other states) deter employees from choosing to join a public employee union?

At first glance, if a union is going to be less able to win the wage and benefit demands it seeks, then a worker would have less incentive to join the union.

“It could be a deterrent to recruiting high quality employees,” said Green. “The issue is less collective bargaining than the results of collective bargaining, namely wages, benefits, and working conditions. If these things decline substantially, it may be harder to recruit high quality government workers.”

Eileen Norcross, a state and local government analyst at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, says the power to use collective bargaining is an important factor, but not the only reason why unions have been able to get what they wanted from state and local governments.

Strong collective bargaining rights tend to go hand in hand with politically active unions and pro-union public sentiment.

In such places, Norcross said, public sector unions "can elect their own bosses and those who control the budget. The incentives of the public sector union and politicians are often aligned, much more so than in the private sector."

Until recently Wisconsin was assumed to be such a place, which is one reason why Walker's success in enacting his union curbs has caused political shock waves.

To what extent will the unions’ treasuries suffer from laws such as the one enacted in Wisconsin and to what extent will this limit union political activities?

Overlooked in the furor over collective bargaining are the provisions in the new Wisconsin law prohibiting municipal or state employers from deducting labor union dues from the earnings of most employees. The law also gives most municipal and state employees the right to opt out of paying union dues even while being represented by a union in bargaining over wages.

These provisions may starve the unions of money that could be used in political campaigns.

“It will have an impact on workers’ ability to have a voice in politics and in legislation,” said the AFL-CIO's Naomi Walker.

Union expert Marick Masters, the director ofthe Labor Studies Center at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the provisions “would substantially reduce the money that the unions have available in Wisconsin for political activity.” He added, “This is about more than collective bargaining; it is about tipping the scales of political power.”

“In the long run, a decline in public sector unions could change the balance of power in American politics by diminishing a major constituency of the Democratic Party,” Green said. “However, this is not likely to happen overnight.”

Anuzis said,“Union bosses will have to be more careful with their political funds and possibly be more reflective of their members by becoming more bipartisan.  This will not cause a significant change in the balance of power, but will clearly affect the way unions play in politics.”

But Democrats argue that Walker’s law will backfire. Gronstal said “the Republicans have made a colossal misjudgment on this … The Republicans are massively overplaying their hand.” And Gronstal and other Democrats say Walker is “awakening the sleeping giant” of previously unconcerned people flocking to the union cause.

If the “sleeping giant” theory is accurate, the effect should be visible not only in the recall efforts underway against 16 Wisconsin lawmakers (eight from each party), but in special elections on May 3 in three vacant Wisconsin assembly seats, all of which were held by Republicans until early this year.

In the 2012 elections, if an invigorated pro-labor vote showed up, it could be crucial in Wisconsin and Ohio, both of which are likely to be hotly contested states. President Obama carried both states in 2008, but in 2004 President George W. Bush won Ohio and got 48 percent of the vote in Wisconsin.

What is the forecast for public sector employment and for public employee unions?

Labor union membership as a percentage of the total U.S. workforce peaked at 25 percent in the late 1950s and has been falling ever since. Last year only 11.9 percent of American workers belonged to unions.

But until recently, government employee union membership had been growing, both in absolute numbers and as percentage of the public employee workforce.

The union membership rate for public sector workers in 2010 was 36.2 percent, compared to only 6.9 percent for private sector workers, with 7.6 million public sector employees belonging to a union, compared to 7.1 million union workers in the private sector.

But the growth period has likely ended. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of state employees hit its all-time peak in January 2009 at 5.2 million and has declined by about 1.6 percent since then. The number of local government workers peaked at 14.6 million in September of 2008 and has declined by about 2.6 percent since then.

“With the projected budget deficits that states have now and into the future, and with the anemic economic growth we have, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to see anything but continuing reductions at the state and local level,” Masters said.

The public sector unions are fighting for a share of a pie that’s growing smaller.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: The latest in Wisconsin union fight

Photos: The battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin

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  1. Massive crowds gather to see the 14 democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker as crowds continued to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on Saturday, March 12. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Democratic Senator Lena Taylor, right, and civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson Jr. greet the crowd as they and the other Wisconsin State democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker return to massive crowds that continue to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 12. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Republican Wisconsin State Legislatures look on as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker performs a ceremonial bill signing outside his office at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 11. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Protesters shout outside the office of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as he held a ceremonial bill-signing on March 11. The bill essentially eliminates collective bargaining rights for public union workers except on wage issues (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters hold wooden letters that spell the word "shame" in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 10. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald makes the argument to pass the budget repair bill before the State Assembly in the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Thursday, March 10. (Allen Fredrickson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Spectators in the gallery of the Wisconsin assembly chambers chant "shame" in protest after the House voted to pass the state's controversial budget bill in the Wisconsin assembly chamber on Thursday in Madison. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Democratic Rep. Jon Richards yells after a vote was cast in the Wisconsin Assembly chambers Thursday in Madison. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Wisconsin State Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-WI) flashes the peace sign after the House voted to pass the state's controversial budget bill in the Wisconsin assembly chamber on Thursday in Madison. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The statue "Forward" displays a new sign at the State Capitol in Madison on Thursday, the day after the Senate passed the governor's controversial budget repair bill. (Steve Apps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Erving Smith, of Madison, Wis., shouts at law enforcement personnel after he was slightly injured while being carried out of the Assembly Room lobby in Madison on Thursday, March 10. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Protesters get kicked out by police from the Wisconsin state assembly chamber as they try to block access to the chambers in Madison on March 10. (Carlos Javier Ortiz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wisconsin Rep. Cory Mason, center, talks to protesters in the rotunda of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday, March 9, after demonstrators retook the Capitol building. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kensoha, center, calls an impromptu news conference March 9 after Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tears roll down the face of Liz Sanger of Madison, Wis., after the state Senate passed the budget repair bill following a meeting of a state Legislature conference committee at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., March 9. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Wisc. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, is escorted out of the state Capitol in Madison, March 9, after Republicans in the Senate voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill deride legislators as they leave the senate parlor at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building where the Senate voted to move forward on an amended version of the controversial bill Wednesday. (John Hart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. After a protester outside throws a snowball hitting a window at the state Capitol, State Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore, implores demonstrators to remain peaceful during a press conference of Democratic state Assembly members, March 9. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Helmut Kenies of the Wisconsin Historical Society sifts through hundreds of signs that were removed from the Wisconsin State Capitol on Tuesday, March 8 in Madison. Posters that were left behind by demostrators that occupied the State Capitol were collected and are being made available for people to claim them until this Friday. Select posters that are not claimed will be acquired by the Historical Society. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Filmmaker Michael Moore speaks to a crowd during a march and rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday, March 5 in Madison. Thousands of demonstrators are staging a protest at the Capitol against Governor Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Union members protest inside the Wisconsin Capitol on Friday, March 4, in Madison. Some demonstrators returned to the Capitol hours after they were forced to vacate the building after occupying it for more than two weeks. They are protesting Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman talks with demonstrators Mark Dziedzic, left, and Jeff Dziedzic inside the state Capitol on March 4. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Wisconsin Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kensoha, celebrates with other lawmakers and protesters March 3 outside of the state Capitol in Madison after a judge ordered the Department of Administration to open the Capitol to normal business hours. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A police officer blocks an entrance of the Wisconsin State Capitol on Thursday. A Wisconsin judge ordered all of the pro-union protesters to leave the Capitol after they had camped out inside the building for two weeks. The judge also ruled that the state had violated the public's free speech and assembly rights by restricting access to the building. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters celebrate as they walk outside of the state Capitol after a judge ordered the Department of Administration to open the Capitol to normal business hours. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Protesters wake-up outside of the state Capitol, Thursday in Madison after sleeping the night. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers are in their 16th day of protests. The Wisconsin Department of Administration officials shut the doors to many protesters and some chose to sleep outside. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Wisconsin State representative Fred Clark. left, meets with constituents at his desk outside the capitol building on March 2. Clark and several other Democrat members of the assembly moved their offices outside the building because of the difficulties the public was having entering the building which has been essentially locked down to prevent protestors from spending the night inside. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Demonstrators protest in a hallway below the assembly chamber where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was delivering his budget address to a joint session of the legislature at the capitol on March 1. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Union Iron Worker Randy Bryce of Milwaukee shows police a court order to open the doors of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, March 1. It was the 14th day of protests against the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Opponents to the governor's bill protest at the state Capitol on March 1. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Democrats refuse to stand as Gov. Scott Walker arrives to deliver his budget address to a joint session of the Legislature, March 1 in Madison. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Police stand in the rotunda of the State Capitol on Feb. 27 in Madison. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Damon Terrrell speaks to protesters at the State Capitol in on Feb. 27. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest outside of the State Capitol on Feb. 26. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Rally supporters hang an American flag from fourth floor windows of the State Capitol as thousands of opponents of Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill gather for ongoing protests inside and outside the State Capitol on Feb. 26. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Protesters gather in the rotunda of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison the morning of Friday, Feb. 25, after the Assembly passed a bill ending most state worker collective bargaining rights. (Carlos Javier Ortiz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Protesters who identified themselves as Kenosha city and county workers hold signs as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's plane flies away after his news conference about his budget repair bill at the Kenosha Airport in Kenosha, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25. (Mark Hertzberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Messages left by supporters protesting in the State Capitol are stuck on the office entrance of Wisconsin State Assemblyman Brett Hulsey on Feb. 25. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Ryan Eykholt of Madison, Wis., plays "This Land Is Your Land" during a protest at the state Capitol in Madison on Friday, Feb. 25, over the governor's proposed budget measures. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Standing beside fellow Assembly Democrats, State Rep. Christine Sinicki approaches the front of the chamber in outrage as their Republican counterparts cut off debate and vote on the budget repair bill in session at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday morning, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Protester Bridgette O'Brien of Elroy, Wis., does a morning routine of yoga at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25 before another day of protesting. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Escorted by law enforcement officers, Assembly Republicans exit the state Capitol after cutting off debate and rapidly voting to pass a controversial budget repair bill in the state Assembly in Madison, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Assembly Democrats wave to protesters, thanking them after Republicans cut off debate and rapidly voted to pass a controversial budget repair bill in the state Assembly at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Wisconsin Reps. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, left, and Donna Seidel, D-Wausau, walk to the governor's office at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Thursday, Feb. 24. Opponents of the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers were in their 10th day of protests. Gov. Scott Walker was trying to get at least one Democratic senator back to the Capitol to vote on the bill. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Wisconsin Democratic state Sens. Tim Cullen, left, and Robert Jauch leave a home on Thursday, Feb. 24, in Woodstock, Ill. The senators have been in Illinois after leaving Wisconsin to try to stop a vote on bill that would take away public workers' collective bargaining rights. (Lauren M. Anderson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Opponents of the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers sleep on the floor of the rotunda at the state Capitol on Feb. 24. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Wisconsin state representatives start to fade as they listen to arguments on one of the expected 200 amendments to the governor's budget bill early Feb. 24. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A protester sleeps on the floor in the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Protesters sleep in the rotunda of the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Democratic and Republican assembly members rise before the start of a session Feb. 22. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Teamsters President James Hoffa speaks at a rally in the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pauses while giving an address in Madison on Feb. 22. to explain his budget bill. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. A man sits surrounded by protesters' signs at the state Capitol in Madison on Feb. 22. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Protesters walk outside the Wisconsin Capitol on Feb. 22. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Opponents of Walker's budget bill sleep in the rotunda on Feb. 22. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. John Henneman, left, and Dan Kuhl, right, teachers from Wisconsin Rapids, protest Feb. 21 outside the King Street entrance to the Capitol. (Steve Apps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. A protester gestures in the Capitol building, after a week's mass protest against Walker's bill on Feb. 21. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. Kathryn Schulze delivers a silent message at the state Capitol on Feb. 21. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Protesters rest inside the State Capitol on Feb. 21 in Madison. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Arnold Chevalier, left, of Stoughton, Wis., shouts inside the State Capitol on Monday. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  61. State Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) speaks to Democratic Senators via telephone during a meeting of the committee for Senate Organization inside the Wisconsin State Capitol on Monday. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  62. A union advocate, left, and a Tea Party supporter argue in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 19, on the grounds of State Capitol over the governor's proposed budget bill. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  63. About 30 members of the AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, protest State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester on Feb. 19. (Scott Anderson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  64. Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 19. A few dozen police officers stood between supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and the much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators who surrounded them. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  65. Protestors take a moment to rest inside a bus shelter as crowds continue to gather at the State Capitol grounds, while members of the Wisconsin state government discuss the proposed bill by Gov. Scott Walker in Madison on Feb. 19. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  66. Democratic Wisconsin Assembly members cheer on the crowd on the fourth day of large scale protests outside of the State Capitol in Madison on Feb. 18. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  67. Teacher Nicole North Hester, right, cries and applauds as union iron workers pass by during the fourth day of large demonstrations at the State Capitol on Feb. 18. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  68. Two protesters put up a sign at the State Capitol on Feb. 17, that reads "Run Dems Run" in support of 14 state Senators that have left the state in opposition the bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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