Republicans stormed to power in state elections across the country in November on a promise to take on the establishment and return government to the average citizen.
But in state capitals where they gained control, they moved quickly to do something else entirely: They’ve consolidated their newfound power — and rewarded their corporate donors — by delivering death blows to a longtime enemy: organized labor.
In Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire, three states that flipped to unified Republican control, legislators have prioritized passing Right to Work, a law that quickly diminishes union power by allowing workers in unionized workplaces to withhold fees used to organize and advocate on their behalf.
That might seem odd to voters who heard promises to “drain the swamp,” but its what Republican partisans and business lobbyists have been demanding for years.
Business interests helped win new Republican victories, now legislators are paying them back.
In Kentucky, Republicans won the legislature for the first time in 95 years with strong campaign support from Americans for Prosperity, the group founded and funded by the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch that is deeply focused on undermining union influence. Americans for Prosperity maintained a major presence in the state, funding campaign expenditures attacking state and local Democrats in swing districts, fielding a large voter canvassing effort, and providing specialized technology for campaign workers. No one knows how much Americans for Prosperity spent on local Kentucky races because the group is not required to disclose state-based campaign expenditures or its donors.
Along with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and other business interests, the Koch-funded group demanded that the new GOP majority in Kentucky pass Right to Work. On Thursday, Kentucky state House legislators passed the union-busting measure, and the state Senate is expected the follow suit on Saturday, with Republican Gov. Matt Bevin prepared to sign it.
Democrats in Kentucky are notably reliant on labor unions for political support. The largest group spending on behalf of local races for Democrats in Kentucky, a Super PAC called Kentucky Family Values, was nearly entirely funded by labor unions. In New Hampshire and Missouri, records show, unions similarly provide a bulk of campaign funds for local Democratic races in competitive districts.
Though advocates for Right to Work claim the measure is designed to boost job growth, studies suggest that the law may correlate with less pay for workers. Business groups dispute this finding, but no one disagrees that the law generally leads to a steep decline in union membership and union political power.
“We’re not anxious to be in a state where they have that much political muscle, the unions do, organized labor does,” said Woody Cozad, a lobbyist in Missouri, previewing the Right to Work bill scheduled for next week, which is also expected to pass now that Republicans control both the governor’s office and the state legislature.
The same thing happened after Republicans won the legislature and the governor’s office in Wisconsin in 2011, as well. They ran on dissatisfaction over the economic recovery, and with the help of groups like Americans for Prosperity — they then consolidated power by passing laws to weaken public sector unions in the state, a measure openly designed to undercut the largest donors to Democratic politicians. They followed up the changes to public sector unions with a Right to Work law.
Wisconsin union membership, once one of the highest, plummeted to below the national average after labor laws were changed by Republicans. In 2015, only 8.3 percent pf Wisconsin workers were union members. The changes have been bleak for Democrats, as the party failed to win any of the major contests last year, and Trump trounced the Hillary Clinton campaign in the state, one of the main drivers of his victory.
As Republicans gained electoral ground across the Rust Belt, Right to Work and similar measures designed to weaken unions were passed in Indiana, West Virginia, and Michigan as well.
Nationally, the incoming Trump administration may continue this trend. Analysts expect Trump to attempt to roll back Obama administration rules that make labor organizing easier for franchise restaurants such as McDonalds. Trump is also expected to appoint a Supreme Court judge who will strike down mandatory fees paid by nonunion members in organized workplaces. Congressional Republicans have also agitated for a national Right to Work law that could turn the tide in Democratic-trending states like California.