The trade union fightback

In a throwback to the 1970s, the defence of union rights is once again a hot political topic in the

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Who'd have thought it? The hot political issue sweeping America is a throwback to the 1970s. Across the Midwest, in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, thousands are out on the streets in defence of trade union rights.

Madison, Wisconsin, has become the epicentre of huge street protests as the Tea Party-backed Republican governor, Scott Walker, pushes ahead with radical spending cuts.

His "budget repair bill" was designed to tackle a $137m defict – which, the Walker team claims, could rise to several billion in the future. State employees will have to contribute more towards their pensions and pay double their present health insurance costs. But just as importantly, if not more so for the unions, it's a major attack on collective bargaining. Walker's bill means workers would only be able to bargain over wages – and they'd have to vote every year on rejoining their union.

Trouble at the grass roots

President Obama, who from the moment he came to office backed the Employee Free Choice Act, which gives unions more rights to organise, has lent some strongly worded support to their cause, calling it an "assault" on workers' rights.

Wisconsin was, after all, the place he flew to straight from his State of the Union address to pitch his case to the nation: in 2008 he won Wisconsin overwhelmingly, by 56 per cent to 42 per cent for the GOP. But now it's one of the states where Obama desperately needs to win back the support of white working-class voters who failed to rally behind him in the midterms.

The White House has been careful to stand well back from local budgetary issues – while the local chapter of Obama's Organising for America campaign stressed that this was a "grass-roots issue, not a Washington one". But it's fast turned into a fight that's just too big to ignore, not just on pay and conditions but – as the unions have described it – a battle for their very existence.

And it is going national, with rallies and protests planned this week across the country. Last night in Columbus, Ohio, thousands of union supporters protested in front of the state courthouse after Republicans introduced a bill to end state employees' rights to collective bargaining – as well as other budget cuts. The state's former governor Ted Strickland,defeated by his GOP rival last fall, called it a "co-ordinated attack on the working middle class".

In Wisconsin itself, 14 Democratic senators have fled the state, in an effort to frustrate Thursday's vote on Governor Walker's measures by denying the state senate its neccessary quorum. Somewhat surreally, they're living what they describe as "hand to mouth" in a secret location across the border in Illinois, fugitives from justice (technically, police have the power to compel them to vote back home).

In Indiana, almost every Democrat in the Indiana house of representatives skipped state lines – in effect killing off a bill they claimed would water down collective bargaining rights.

Other large-scale protests are also being planned for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, which are all facing budget crises of their own.

"No agendas"

So, what's behind all of this? In part, it's an insight into the Tea Party's political agenda: weakening the unions in order, perhaps, to see them killed off altogether. In Wisconsin, they're also planning radical measures to weaken state control over health programmes, as well as sending back hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds intended to contribute towards local infrastructure projects.

Republican leaders say it's all about cutting costs – and state employees should bear their share of the pain. In Ohio, for instance, their average pay is considerably higher than for equivalent private-sector workers, and their benefits and pension rights are far more generous. According to a spokesman for Ohio's governor, John Kasich, there is no hidden politics involved: "This is an effort to save the state, no agendas," he says.

Unions, however, aren't exactly popular. Their support among the general population has declined significantly since their heyday. When Gallup last polled on the issue, around 18 months ago, it found that less than half of all Americans approved of unions, compared to 72 per cent who supported them back in the 1930s. Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker, claims that his office gets about 1,000 emails a day on the current fight, mostly in support of his measures.

But here's the money question: in a quintessential struggle over the very existence of trade unions and their rights to organise, who benefits – and who pays? The New York Times reveals that the long-time union opponents Charles and David Koch, both billionaires, have been among the biggest financial contributors to Governor Walker's campaign. They also support a conservative group called Americans for Prosperity, which will start running anti-union advertisements in the Badger State over the next few days.

And in last year's gubernatorial elections, guess who raised money for Walker's opponent? That's right – the unions. As the fight for the White House in 2012 looms ever closer, money, power and organisation will be the only priorities in town. Turns out this isn't just a battle over labour rights, after all.

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