Can unions deliver for Obama in 2012?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “Enjoy your stay in Charlotte, that great hub of opportunity for working Americans and the labor movement!”
That was what a longtime operative for a hotel and restaurant union told Human Events shortly before we departed to cover the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. this week. His words, of course, reeked with sarcasm. North Carolina is a right-to-work state where unions play a minimal role in politics.
In angry response to the decision of national Democrats to hold their convention in labor-unfriendly turf, many union leaders are scaling back their participation in the party conclave or pulling back from it altogether. Although AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka plans to be in Charlotte this week and will hold a meeting of labor delegates Tuesday, he made it clear in a letter to fellow labor officials that “we will not be making major monetary contributions to the convention or the host committee for events or activities around the convention.”
But of far greater concern to Democrats as they arrive on Labor Day for their three-day convention is whether the unions, long a firm pillar in the Democratic Party’s national coalition, can deliver one more time for the Obama-Biden ticket.
Labor’s death knell?
As much as any modern Democratic president, Barack Obama has fought hard for the unions’ agenda. From Big Labor’s cherished “card check” (to water down the secret ballot in union elections) to securing a more politically sympathetic National Labor Relations Board, the Obama White House has weighed in firmly for the union agenda.
As it did in 2008, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is expected to spend more than $60 million to help re-elect Obama and assist congressional Democrats. Overall, labor unions are likely to spend $400 million on behalf of Democratic candidates this fall.
Beyond funding, however, there are serious doubts that unions still have the manpower necessary to turn out voters as they have done in past elections. In 2012, only 11.8 percent of workers belong to unions. Among workers in non-government related jobs, the union membership is down to 6.9 percent.
“In much of America, unions have already disappeared,” Harold Meyerson wrote in the Labor Day edition of the left-of-center American Prospect Magazine. “In the rest of America, they are battling for their lives.”
In a provocative article entitled “If Labor Dies, What Next?,” Meyerson catalogued recent defeats unions have suffered in the Midwest: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniel’s signing of a right-to-work law (making Indiana the first Midwestern State to enact such legislation), the nationally-watched effort of Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker to require most public employees to pay for a portion of their health care and pension benefits, and Walker’s triumph in the resultant union-fueled recall election.
“Coming on the heels of the failure of the Democratic Congress of 2009-10 to amend the National Labor Relations act so that private sector workers wouldn’t risk their jobs by forming a union,” concluded Meyerson, “the Midwestern setbacks struck a growing number of commentators as labor’s death knell.”
Doubts about unions being able to get out the vote in such critical states has clearly boosted GOP optimism. As Pennsylvania GOP State Chairman Rob Gleason told Human Events in Tampa, Fla. last week: “We have a fine ground game to turn out votes and the unions are not as strong here as they used to be, especially those representing coal miners. If the unions can’t turn out the vote, it’s over.”
Although several analogies have been made between Harry Truman’s winning strategy of generating support from blue-collar workers in 1948 and Obama’s today, historian David Pietrusza, author of the much-praised “1948” on that election, pointed out to us that “individual union members react very strongly to pocketbook issues and Truman had them on his side—virtually full employment, anger over Taft-Hartley (labor) legislation, and blaming the Republican Congress for allegedly doing nothing about inflation. This time Romney owns the pocketbook issues. Obama’s message is Truman’s class warfare rhetoric on steroids. Obama talks about the middle-class but his real emphasis is on ‘class’ rather than ‘middle.’”
Whether that will be enough to rally the blue-collar legions to the phonebanks and polls could well be pivotal to victory or defeat for Barack Obama this fall.