An unexpected effect of the war on unions by several Republican governors has been a sympathy backlash among voters.
By ratios of about two to one, respondents told pollsters that public-sector workers should not lose their rights to unionize. A slightly smaller majority didn’t want government employees to suffer cuts in wages or benefits, according to both Gallup/USA Today and New York Times/CBS polls.
Seldom heard words, such as “collective bargaining,” began showing up on network newscasts. People who hadn’t thought much about unions, or didn’t think about them at all, evidently liked what they heard.
All this reflects the emergence of a long-simmering issue: the anxiety of the middle class.
With neither party offering a believable story of what caused the economy to crash or a plan to rebuild the security of the middle class, the labor movement is one of the few sources of a coherent opposition story and compelling program of reinvestment and restored wages.
Meanwhile, in the Washington echo chamber, both Democrats and Republicans are behaving as though the biggest economic issue is the budget deficit. But out in America, people are more worried about losing their jobs. New York Times/CBS polls show that 43 percent of respondents put jobs as the top concern, compared with only 14 percent who cited deficits. Citizens know better than elites that austerity won’t bring recovery.
In Wisconsin, the GOP script called for regular people to be outraged that nurses, teachers, firefighters and cops still had decent pensions and jobs — when other citizens were losing theirs. But voters identified more with their neighbors who happened to work for the government than with the GOP governors. Indeed, Republican Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio and Mitch Daniels in Indiana have all suffered in the polls.
Somehow, in the aftermath of an economic collapse created on Wall Street, it strained credulity to believe that the budget crises were mainly the fault of ordinary workers. People know that huge paydays have returned for investment bankers, while Main Street remains in the doldrums.
This assault on unions has tapped into the latent politics of class in America.
You have to wonder why the Democratic legislators in Wisconsin are made of sterner stuff than their Beltway counterparts. By sticking to principle, they won public support and exposed Walker as an extremist.
In Congress, many Democrats seem so eager to make a budget deal that Republicans get away with moving the goal posts. At this rate, by the time President Barack Obama can boast that he split the difference to prevent a government shutdown, the deal will be mostly on Republican terms, and there won’t be much useful government left.
In 2010, swing voters protested a weak recovery by voting against the incumbent Democrats. But they did not vote for the extreme slash-and-burn policies of the tea party. It might be useful if our conciliatory president pointed that out occasionally.
It’s also instructive that while the Wisconsin Democrats backed their labor brothers and sisters, the Obama administration did not make the Employee Free Choice Act a priority. This bill could have put some teeth in citizens’ rights to join a union.
Unions work to support progressive legislation and to elect Democrats. Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce know this all too well — the Chamber promised “Armageddon” if Obama pushed EFCA. But the Chamber didn’t have to fire a shot.
The secure middle class of the postwar era was built by activist government. It was government that sponsored social insurance, devised regulations to keep Wall Street from crashing the economy, provided educational opportunities to the nonrich and facilitated collective bargaining.
The labor movement was an anchor of this social compact. But as that model of broad prosperity came under assault, beginning in the 1970s, incomes at the top soared while those of the anxious middle class stagnated. It is hard to imagine restoring that prosperity without a stronger union movement.
Today, just 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions. But as the middle class becomes increasingly vulnerable, more Americans are remembering that unions “stick up for the little guy” — and gal.
Public workers are newly under attack. But there is fresh organizing among low-wage retail workers at places such as Wal-Mart and in occupations like janitor, hotel and restaurant worker and security guard, as well as middle-class occupations such as nursing.
The United Auto Workers, which was a genuine partner in the retooling of the U.S. auto industry, is launching a fresh campaign under its new president, Bob King, to organize foreign-owned U.S. auto plants. The United Steelworkers has helped domestic steel companies rebuild as a leaner and more competitive industry. The pending merger of AT&T and T-Mobile is likely to create a larger pool of unionized telephone workers. Unions have also been leaders of the effort to reregulate Wall Street.
Republicans may ultimately find that it was a strategic blunder to demonize unions. As more of the middle class feels the economic vulnerabilities of the working class, Americans are giving unions a second look.