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Why Labor Is Vulnerable

The labor movement’s difficulties in Wisconsin and elsewhere demonstrate its precarious position in the political arena.

photo of Reid Wilson
March 2, 2011

The length to which Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker has gone to undermine state employee unions is remarkable. His proposals are an all-out assault on one of the key members of the Democratic coalition, something no Republican has been able to achieve for a generation.

Walker’s legislation stripping unions of some collective-bargaining rights and ending the state’s role in deducting union dues from paychecks is far from a done deal. But he would not have gotten this far—and other governors and legislatures in Indiana, Ohio, and elsewhere wouldn’t even have tried—if not for the precarious position Big Labor finds itself.

For the first time in more than a century, labor is playing a minor role, at best, in a Democratic-led Washington. Party strategists, including some close to the labor movement, say President Obama’s success in 2008 highlighted the deep plunge in union membership, and its influence within the Democratic Party.


One strategist pointed to Pennsylvania, a state in which labor once ruled the Democratic primary. In 2002, former state auditor and now-Sen. Robert Casey had support from every major union in his race for governor; former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell trounced Casey by 13 points in the primary. In 2004, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees threw their support behind Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, just before it imploded.

Then came 2008, when Obama, an upstart with little connection to the Democratic establishment, and labor specifically, was competing against two established brands.

Most major unions lined up behind then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., or former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.; the first national union to endorse Obama, the plumbers and pipefitters union, did so on January 9, 2008, after Iowa and New Hampshire had already allocated their delegates. Obama won the Democratic primary with virtually no union help.

The lesson Obama’s team learned, according to Democrats close to the campaign, was that labor’s organizing methods on behalf of Clinton and Edwards were less effective than the organization Obama put together.

Obama refused to make contributions to local labor organizations and other political outfits in places like South Carolina and Philadelphia, payments tolerated for years by Democratic campaigns but often derided as walking-around money. And, later in the campaign, Obama’s team utilized labor unions to a far lesser extent than previous Democratic nominees.

“Most of the union world was not with them in the primary. Those that were with them came on after Edwards started to fail. It wasn’t an immediate marriage,” said a veteran Democratic consultant close to Obama’s campaign.

“Labor was never a very appreciated entity in the Obama organizing experience. They kind of dealt with them as dinosaurs and has-beens.”

Other Democrats, who asked not to be named in order to offer their frank assessments of the labor movement, said unions have tried to keep up with changing technology, but their political tactics remain a relic.

Whether it’s adopting Obama’s organizing tactics or embracing social media, labor has fallen behind. Conversely, the business community, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and outside groups like American Crossroads, has been much more proactive in reaching out to voters.

Labor’s declining importance to the Democratic Party mirrors the changing face of the party. As Democrats rely more on a diverse and booming coalition of minorities, white voters, particularly men, are increasingly voting Republican. That, former SEIU head Andy Stern said, is a warning sign for Democrats.

“The only white men who have been voting Democratic are white union members. You’d think that would be a compelling case for Democrats, for self-preservation, to create more union members. That argument has failed miserably,” he said. “I think we have a political equation that works that has not translated to a change of behavior.”

Once in the White House, Obama made moves to include labor. Stern was appointed to several panels. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is a member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. And Obama’s first political director, Patrick Gaspard, was a vice president at a key SEIU local.

But some of labor’s most important priorities haven’t received the attention labor would like; the Employee Free Choice Act was a prominent bogeyman for Republicans raising money, but there was little serious effort to pass the bill.
And when Walker began his campaign for his budget bill this year, the White House started to respond, only to step back.

“The union movement has had and has extremely high hopes for the Obama administration,” Stern said in an interview. But, he added: “People have felt he needed to be more proactive himself when it comes to policy issues.”

Indeed, in 2000, 26 percent of the electorate lived in a household that included a union member, according to national exit polls. By 2008, that number was 20 percent. Public employee unions remain the strongest part of the labor movement; it is exactly those unions Walker and his allies want to take down.

“We need to appreciate that unions now are down to 6.2 percent of the private sector. Union strength is not anything more than their members, and when they have less of them, a smaller part of the electorate, they’re going to get less attention,” Stern said. If labor doesn’t use Wisconsin to adapt to modern politics, they might be even further marginalized from the Democratic fold.

This article appears in the March 3, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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