Even as they occupy opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, the union protests in Wisconsin and the tea party movement have a remarkably similar genesis. Months after demoralizing elections, both movements converted outrage over the actions of newly elected officials into grassroots-focused activism. President Obama sparked the tea party; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker incited liberals.
Democrats must now ask themselves: Can they, like the tea party, sustain the anger percolating among rank-and-file members long enough to deliver a similar, crippling blow on Election Day 2012?
Less than a day after Republican senators in Wisconsin unexpectedly approved the controversial bill limiting public-employee union members' right to collective bargaining, Democrats in Washington were already touting it as the spark that will topple Republicans at the polls next year. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, speaking on Thursday morning at a forum held by the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future, went as far as to say that unions owe Walker a “thank you.”
“We probably should have invited him today to receive the 'Mobilizer of the Year' award,” he said.
The enthusiasm was evident in Madison, Wis., with rallies attracting tens of thousands of supporters who packed the Capitol. On Thursday, images from the locked-down statehouse in Madison took a chaotic turn when GOP House members prepared to pass Walker’s legislation. Police escorted dozens of kicking and screaming protesters, many of whom were pounding on the locked doors of the Assembly today refusing to leave the building.
It’s the kind of political excitement that was missing in the liberal base last year, part of the reason Democrats were plagued by a gaping enthusiasm gap against Republicans. Walker’s bill has been a “really big wake-up call” for Democrats, said Abigail Clark, who attended the summit.
“I hope that this is a moment where all Democrats and progressives realize what the consequences of that will be,” she said. “If you sit it out on Election Day—as many people say, elections matter.”
Many at the conference described a labor movement that had been beleaguered for decades as membership dwindled and politicians focused on limiting government’s size. But suddenly, they say, Walker and GOP gubernatorial colleagues in several states, including Ohio and Michigan, have pushed collective-bargaining rights onto the national agenda.
“Most Americans don’t realize the extent to which unions were eroded,” even if they're supportive of collective-bargaining rights, said Karen Dolan, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
“This has really brought to light workers' rights—collective-bargaining unions are the backbone of the country,” she said. “We take that for granted because these struggles were many decades ago.”
But whether the pro-labor Democrats can sustain the momentum they feel now until November 2012 remains an unanswered question. For all the talk about the enthusiasm Walker’s bill has generated with liberal activists, it’s possible that Democrats are missing the cloud for the silver lining. One hurdle is obvious: The Wisconsin legislation effectively neuters the state's public-sector unions and hinders their political machine.
Other Democrats also question whether the president and legislative allies can keep liberals engaged in the political process with a progressive, jobs-first agenda. Many liberals disappointed in the president’s veer toward fiscal austerity this legislative session have nonetheless rallied against Republicans in recent weeks because of the anti-union measures in Wisconsin, said Roger Hickey, co-chair of Progress for America’s Future.
But it’s an open question, he said, if they will remain motivated to vote for a president who doesn’t support their agenda.
“Our hope is that it will also translate into a demand for Democrats to stand up and fight for jobs instead of austerity.”
Hickey pointed out that the anti-union measures in Wisconsin and Ohio have also come in potential presidential battlegrounds. They are populated largely by white, working-class voters who turned sharply against Democrats in 2010.
“Lose those big industrial states, you’re cutting off one arm, you’re making it hugely difficult,” he said.
Democratic dreams of reviving the labor movement are also met by Republican skepticism. Grover Norquist, founder of American Taxpayers for Reform, says that when the dust settles the legislation in Wisconsin will prove to be popular. In his opinion, the rank-and-file union members will be pleased to see an extra $500 dollars in their paycheck each year.
“Union dues are only really collectible if the government takes the money out of workers’ paychecks and hands them to union bosses,” he told National Journal. “Union members will find themselves with more of their own money. Sure, their leaders will tell them they should be mad, but it will be hard to argue with the paycheck.”
Norquist predicts that the legislation will be so popular that it will “spread like wildfire” across the country, and prove to be a selling point for fiscal conservatives in 2012.
“All we have to do is point out that this gives everybody more flexibility, from workers to businesses to states,” he said. “It gets the one-size-fits all mentality out of our workplaces, and keeps union bosses out of the pockets of workers.”