Can This Election Save the Unions?

It now seems like ancient history: the few weeks between Barack Obama’s election in November 2008 and the onset, after the inauguration, of intransigent, increasingly successful Republican opposition to his entire program. That was a moment in which hostility to the banks and the bailout worked in the left’s favor, legitimating insurgencies such as the sit-in strike at Chicago Windows and Doors, even as the president’s transformative legislative agenda, the most ambitious in more than forty years, put a significant stimulus package, universal health insurance, and a substantial reform of the labor law within sight.

All that is now gone, with even Obama’s genuinely progressive health care law up for electoral and judicial grabs. The unions spent at least $300 million to elect Obama, and in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, their ground-level mobilization of members and friends played a decisive role. The grand logic of a progressive renaissance was this: enact a health care law, which would make bargaining easier, and then push through the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would enable unions to capitalize upon the somewhat more benign organizing climate created when thousands of employers in the service and retail sectors found that the federal government, through its expansion of Medicaid and through other health care subsidies to low-wage workers, had relieved them of a substantial proportion of their labor costs, both actual and projected.

But this scenario collapsed with stunning rapidity and with a depressing familiarity. For half a century, labor has gotten an opportunity to reform the labor law and strengthen its own institutional power about once every dozen years or so, during those rare moments when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. The most famous instance came in the mid 1960s when a truly liberal hour gave labor and the Democrats the chance to repeal Taft-Hartley’s section 14b, which gave state legislatures, most in the South and Mountain West, the power to weaken unions by making the union shop illegal. Although labor was part of the liberal coalition that pushed through a new New Deal, with civil rights legislation, Medicare, and a liberalization of the immigration law at its core, even a modest reform of the labor law proved a bridge too far.

Thereafter labor’s ambitions were more constrained: in the late 1970s, the unions failed to win a change in National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) procedures that would have made unionizing easier, and during the first two years of the Clinton Administration their efforts to make corporate strike breaking more difficult also failed. And, of course, the demise of EFCA, even before the GOP sweep in the 2010 elections, now seems to have been inevitable, given the anti-union militancy of the Republicans, the relative disunity of the Democrats on labor issues, and the opposition of virtually every significant corporate entity in the country.

Whatever the details, a political and policy pattern now seems well embedded: during those brief windows of liberal legislative opportunity, organized labor often plays a key role in electing Democrats and in advancing reforms, such as financial regulation, a more progressive tax regime, and health care innovations that nudge the polity in a social democratic direction. But during those same moments of Democratic Party power, labor itself has repeatedly failed to win any federal legislation that would strengthen its institutional capacity for growth or for the exercise of what economic and political leverage it still commands.

POLITICALLY, ALL this leaves labor exceedingly vulnerable, which became manifest immediately following the Republican sweep in the 2010 elections. Why did so many Republican governors and legislators, in once solidly labor states like Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, seek new legislation that would cripple public sector unions and marginalize labor’s remaining political clout? The proximate cause was the fiscal crisis that gripped so many states and overnight made state pension obligations look far more burdensome than before the Great Recession. But their decision to attack not just the wages and pension benefits of the public sector workers but the entire institution of collective bargaining on the state level arose from a peculiar configuration of union weakness.

At first blush, labor’s weakness looks like strength. Public sector workers now compose more than half of all unionized workers in the United States. Their union density stands at some 37 percent nationwide, but in states with public sector collective bargaining laws, it rises to well above 60 percent. In Illinois an astounding 96 percent of all state workers are covered by union contracts, a proportion that has risen in recent years as even managers and high level professionals have sought labor’s protection and representation during an uncertain era of layoffs and wage freezes. But this relative success among public sector workers in Northern and Western states has been accompanied by a collapse of private sector unionism and, perhaps even more important, the equally dramatic disintegration of the private sector social safety net that non-union workers could once rely upon. In 1980, 84 percent of workers at medium and large companies had a defined-benefit pension plan, but by 2009, just 30 percent of workers in these larger companies were covered under such plans, a vexing statistic when the investments upon which so many defined contribution plans—the 401(k) plans and their clones—turned sour.

Right-wing populists, therefore, want the work life, health benefits, and retirement prospects of public employees to become just as miserable and insecure as those faced by the rest of the working population. As Wisconsin governor Scott Walker argued, “My brother is a banquet manager and occasional bartender at a hotel. He pays nearly $800 a month for his family’s health insurance and can put away only a little bit toward his 401(k). He would love the plan I’m offering to public employees.” The point, concluded Walker, is that “we can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.”

THIS INDICTMENT has gained traction because the decline of private sector unionism has so distorted the political landscape. As sociologist Jake Rosenfeld shows in a forthcoming book, What Unions No Longer Do, the virtual absence of unionism in the private sector has crippled the capacity of liberals and Democrats to fight against the reenergized forces of the right. We think of the great era of union decline as having commenced with President Ronald Reagan’s destruction of PATCO in 1981. The next decade was indeed a terrible era for the unions, with density in the private sector dropping from 22 percent to 14 percent. But private sector unionization rates have dropped by nearly half in the years after 1990, largely a product of employment shrinkage in the manufacturing sector combined with an intransigent anti-unionism in those parts of the economy, such as retail trade, hotels, restaurants, and logistics that have boomed during these same years.

As a result, the American labor movement is now, in terms of numbers and social dynamism, one of public sector workers. And public employees are different. Union or not, they have more education, are more engaged in civic life, and already vote at levels well above their private sector counterparts. When these workers are unionized the probability that they will vote increases by less than 2.5 percent. They are a Democratic Party constituency, but unionism per se has had relatively little to do with it. However, for private sector workers the unionization dividend is almost three times larger. These more poorly educated workers, often with an imperfect knowledge of English, become far more politically engaged when represented by a union, after which they are also more inclined to vote Democratic, perhaps 10 percent more likely according to Rosenfeld. And then, when they are represented by a powerful national trade union—like the United Auto Workers or the Electrical Workers in days of old—the bottom half of the working class has a voice that can be heard in the halls of Congress during many a legislative moment.

Indeed, the collapse of unionism in the private sector may well have had as great an impact on the Republican Party as on the Democratic. Liberal Republicanism arose in the late years of the Great Depression, as represented by figures like Harold Stassen of Minnesota, Oregon’s Wayne Morse, Californian Earl Warren, and New York’s Thomas Dewey, when politicians from the GOP realized that trade unionism had become a potent fact of political life. These were the “sophisticated conservatives,” as C. Wright Mills defined them, who accepted the existence of trade unionism but wanted that organizational impulse confined to the realm of apolitical collective bargaining. Thus the auto executive—and moderate Republican—George Romney declared Walter Reuther “the most dangerous man in Detroit” because, unlike the original Jimmy Hoffa or other business unionists with whom the elder Romney bargained, the UAW leader long sought not just a better contract for his members, but an influential political role for labor’s millions.

Liberal Republicans are extinct, not just because of the culture wars, but because there are so few union workers to which they feel constrained to appeal. Indeed, the GOP has declared war on even the most prosaic forms of private sector collective bargaining, as manifested by that party’s near hysteria over even the most modest efforts by the NLRB to speed up elections and make organizing easier. The rightward lurch of the Republicans has also been manifest in the way the libertarian assault on government itself has transformed and hardened their opposition to unionism in the public sector. Beginning with the 1919 Boston police strike and extending all the way through Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the air traffic controllers union in 1981, the chief conservative critique of public sector unionism arose out of its presumptive challenge to the sovereignty of the state, to the potential chaos that might well follow the exercise of union strike power in the government sector.

But in recent years, this charge has been turned on its head. Today, the argument goes, public sector unions are too powerful because they sustain a strong and intrusive state, not because they subvert it. Indeed, with public sector strikes, like all strikes, virtually nonexistent, Tea Party–inflected Republicans claim that these unions are the chief obstacle to the dismantling of what remains of the New Deal state because they oppose the layoffs, agency closures, budget cuts, privatization schemes, and reduction of welfare benefits that conservatives seek. Indeed, to many conservatives, public sector collective bargaining constitutes a conspiracy against the public, an institutionalized source of corruption that increases unnecessarily the demand for government services. From the right-wing perspective, it is not enough to replace one set of state managers with another: instead, the entire apparatus of public sector bargaining has to go.

AT THIS writing, we don’t know the results of the recall election in Wisconsin. If Scott Walker is defeated, the victory will undoubtedly be sweet for unionists and progressives. But whatever the outcome, we do know some important things about the Wisconsin contest and similar referenda and legislative votes that have roiled the political waters in Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, and other Midwestern battleground states. First, these contests have mobilized partisans, both pro and con, to a degree that exceeds even such highly charged and news-cycle dominating issues as Obamacare, the fate of the Bush tax cuts, red state efforts to limit abortion access, or legislation designed to legalize gay marriage.

In Wisconsin, during the run up to the recall, and in Ohio, where in November 2011 a coalition of unionists and progressives passed a referendum overturning an even more sweeping Republican-backed law eviscerating public employee collective bargaining rights, both sides spent millions of dollars and fielded tens of thousands of volunteers, most mobilized by the unions, to knock on doors and collect signatures.

In Wisconsin, nearly a million signed recall petitions, which also put the fate of the lieutenant governor and four GOP state legislators up for grabs in a June election. But this labor-liberal mobilization had its right-wing counterpart. Despite a set of divisive GOP presidential primaries, the assault on union power proved one issue upon which both Tea Party insurgents and establishment Republicans could agree. More than 90 percent of all Republicans strongly approved of the job Walker was doing, while almost the same proportion of Democrats disliked him with equal intensity. In Wisconsin, in the months before the June recall election, there were few undecided voters. Such passionate polarization is a tribute to both the ideological and political significance of a set of institutions that are all too often prosaic and timid, but which nevertheless represent working-class power in a very tangible fashion.

Wisconsin and Ohio are swing states, Ohio more so than the Badger State, so the effort that generated such grass-roots mobilizations is likely to be deployed to good effect in the November presidential elections. We can see this in Ohio where voting patterns in the November 2011 referendum that defeated the state senate’s anti-union bill mirrored the results of the 2008 Obama victory. Obama took Lorain County, near Cleveland, by more than 58 percent in 2008, far better than Democratic governor Ted Strickland could manage two years later, when conservative Republican John Kasich dealt him a crushing statewide defeat. But just a year later unionists and progressives had reassembled the 2008 Obama coalition that defeated SB5 by a two-to-one margin in Lorain County, roughly in line with the rest of the state.

In Wisconsin, we find similar patterns. Obama took small-town, nearly all-white Winnebego County by 54 percent of the vote in 2008 but Walker won 53 percent in the much lower turnout gubernatorial election two years later. However, when outraged Democrats and unionists began a recall campaign against those Republican legislators who had voted for Walker’s anti-union legislation, Republican State Senator Randy Hopper lost the county by nearly ten points in the July 2011 election in which he also lost his seat representing Wisconsin’s 18th state senate district.

These union victories were the product of an old-fashioned sort of shoe leather mobilization. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, most notable for opening the campaign flood gates to money from billionaire conservatives, may actually prove a boon to such union-oriented electoral efforts. Labor can never match corporate dollars when it comes to the purchase of TV advertising or the payment of high-priced campaign staffers. But in such highly polarized states as Wisconsin, the impact of a conservative-funded TV ad blitz is limited. There are simply no undecided voters, who constitute the prime target of such media offensives.

More important is the door-to-door mobilization of voters, and on this terrain the Court’s ruling makes it possible for labor to directly spend dues income to influence the general public. Before Citizens United, unions could try to “educate” their own members during the run up to an election; to reach non-members they often gave money to the Democrats, who in turn propagandized on behalf of liberal laws and politicians among the entire electorate. With Citizens United it is likely that the unions themselves will increasingly take on this task, thereby framing issues in a somewhat more laborite fashion. Indeed, national Democratic officials fear that labor will reduce the money it offers to Democrats or spend more on local and state races.

The national implications of all this are twofold. First, the election of 2012 will resemble that of 2004 far more than that of 2008. Finding and persuading undecided voters will be relatively less important to an Obama victory this time around. The mobilization of the Democratic base will be all important, and in this effort the trade unions will once again play a crucial role in key Midwestern states. Moreover, Obama will campaign as an economic populist: he will be just as delighted as Mitt Romney to shove the social issues to the sideline. This election will be about class fairness and the legitimacy of government as regulator of the economy and guarantor of the welfare state.

But ironically, and tragically, a defense of trade unionism, either private or public, will not figure prominently in the typical Obama stump speech, regardless of the mobilizing potential demonstrated by such an appeal in Wisconsin and Ohio. From the perspective of the national Democrats, there is a very good reason for this. More than half of all union members in the nation are concentrated in just seven states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan. Here union density stands in the teens or better, and Obama could undoubtedly turbo charge his campaign with a full-throated defense of the union idea, not unlike FDR in the depression era.

However, there are also crucial states in which unionists are few and the political culture rabidly anti-union. In Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona, and Florida, where Obama and the Democrats hope to lock down a national victory, union density rises no higher than 7.5 percent. In North Carolina, where manufacturing employment is still important, the unions enroll but 4.1 percent of the work force, the lowest in the nation. These are right-to-work states with weak laws or none facilitating public employee collective bargaining. Here unionism is an alien concept with virtually no public advocates, even in the Democratic Party. Labor and the Democrats will undoubtedly mobilize thousands of staffers and pour millions of dollars into these swing states, both South and North, but the union idea itself will achieve no legitimization during that heated campaign, even if Obama wins reelection and the Congress tilts in a somewhat more progressive direction.

If Obama wins reelection, it will be a good thing, but the fate of American unionism resides entirely in the hands of those who are its most dedicated partisans.

Nelson Lichtenstein is the co-editor, with Elizabeth Shermer, of The Right and American Labor: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). He teaches history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy.