The myth of RI labor’s State House clout

Jun 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