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Middle-Class Nightmare 

The ghost of Joe Hill on the labor situation in Idaho.

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Last night I dreamed I saw Joe Hill, the legendary union organizer and folk singer, and he was hoppin’ mad. He yelled, “When the union bashing started in Boise last January, why didn’t you folks in Idaho move into the statehouse, like the angry protesters in Wisconsin did? Why aren’t you protecting Idaho’s future middle class?” Remember the song? “Joe Hill ain’t never died.

Where working men are out on strike, Joe Hill is at their side.”

Scared speechless by Joe Hill’s ghost, I could only mumble “Right to Work legislation got here first. Our solidarity forever was cut off at the knees in 1985. Labor unions in Idaho are a shadow of their former selves.”

In the morning paper, I read that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has admitted he made mistakes, as he finds himself and his fellow Republicans facing threats of recall. Governor Walker’s disapproval ratings have soared to 59 percent since he promoted and passed a law that stripped most public employees of their collective bargaining rights. He’s not said he’s sorry, but he’s definitely humbled by the negative poll results.

Back here in Idaho, the Republican-dominated legislature left a trail of anti-union bills very comparable to the ones that raised such a fuss in Wisconsin. But our legislators are facing little outrage and no apparent consequences. We need more of Joe Hill in this fight.

On a brighter note, on July 1, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill issued a knucklerapping preliminary injunction to Senate Bill 1007 sponsored by Coeur d’Alene Sen. John Goedde, Post Falls Rep. Frank Henderson and nine other Republican legislators. The legislation limits the ability of unions or union members to invest in job-targeting ventures.

The bill is titled the “Fairness in Contracting Act,” as a companion piece to Senate Bill 1006 called the “Open Access to Work Act.” You can be assured that the legislation promotes neither fairness nor open access.

The judge’s opinion places a halt on the bill, but it is not the final ruling in the case. The opinion suggests the Idaho Legislature overreached into territory preempted by federal law. Courts have interpreted that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act protects market recovery programs whose objectives are to protect employees’ jobs and wage scales.

Of minor amusement: Legislators ignored an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office on Senate Bill 1007, which advised them that federal rules would probably preempt their proposed legislation. Both the Senate and the House passed the bill anyway, and by wide margins. Although the legislators had ignored the AG’s opinion, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has been obligated to defend their legislative action.

Such an unnecessary lawsuit costs union duespaying members and taxpayers alike. Since union members are also taxpayers, they get a double hit and have to help pay for both sides. That’s something legislators should remember when they engage in union-bashing. Union members are voters, taxpayers and constituents, too, and they deserve the proper respect.

The right of people to organize is a basic tenet of our democracy. I have lived my life in and out of organizations, and I appreciate the value of bringing people together for common causes about which we feel strongly. The nonprofit organizations that I have been associated with are a branch off the same freedom-of-association tree that has grown sturdily in our nation’s democratic soil.

And I am pained to watch any branch of that tree maligned, be they teachers who have been the current target of critics, or members of the Service Employees International Union, who are taking care of the elderly and infirm of our society. Making jokes about lawyers and their groups is, of course, fair game.

For over a century, trade unions have been the backbone of our society and our economy. Unions have been responsible for higher wages for both members and nonmembers. Unions provide skilled employees and reduce employee turnover. Their members have traditionally swelled the ranks of the middle class.

Right To Work was the first bill out of the chute for me as a freshman in the Idaho Senate in 1985. The Senate Pro Tem at the time (and the chief promoter of Right to Work) was Jim Risch, now our U.S. Senator from Idaho. The rhetoric flew fast and furiously on how Idaho would benefit from the legislation. Industry would supposedly rush into our state and create jobs, jobs, jobs, and we would all be fat and happy and prosper forever.

Right to Work passed over our 14 Democratic nay votes, not enough to sustain Governor John Evans’ predictable veto.

So how did all that work out? Now, 26 years later, Idaho spends less per public-school pupil than any other state, the unemployment rate is 9.4 percent and the medium annual wage is almost $12,000 lower than that of our neighboring state of Washington. All those promised jobs never materialized.

Now on the national Congressional stage, Jim Risch is one of six Republican sponsors of a national Right to Work law. The sponsors intend to inflict this miserable policy on the rest of the country.

I can only plead: “Don’t do it fellows” (yes, they’re all men) and ask: What would Joe Hill say?”

Mary Lou Reed lives in Coeur d’Alene. Her column appears here every month.

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