The state-by-state pattern of public employment cuts, pension rollbacks, and union busting makes little sense from an economic standpoint. But it becomes much more intelligible when understood as a political phenomenon.
As previously noted, in November 2010, 11 states gave Republicans new monopoly control over their state government, putting them in charge of both houses of the legislature as well as the governor’s office. These historic gains were part of the Tea Party–inspired “wave” election that, at the federal level, saw the GOP regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. They also reflected the impact of unlimited corporate spending, as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision overturned restrictions on campaign spending at the state as well as federal levels. In Wisconsin, for instance, long-standing restrictions that limited corporate political spending were ruled invalid. As a result, the 2010 elections were the most expensive in the state’s history, with money flooding in from out-of-state business interests.15The officials who took office in January 2011 represented the first crop of legislators elected under the new rules of unlimited spending.
Much of the most dramatic legislation since 2011 has been concentrated in these 11 states. Particularly in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, which have traditionally upheld high labor standards, the 2010 election provided a critical opportunity for corporate lobbies to advance legislative goals that had long lingered on wish lists. Where Republicans found themselves in total control of states whose statutes had been shaped by a history of strong labor movements, employer associations and corporate lobbyists were eager to seize on this rare and possibly temporary authority to enact as much of their agenda as possible.