Stateside,  Trade Unions

The GOP miscalculates in Wisconsin

A legislative maneuver allowed Republican state senators in Wisconsin Wednesday to pass a bill stripping public workers of most collective bargaining rights despite the absence of Democratic senators.

And if anyone really believed that Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-public union stance was primarily about balancing the state budget, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was pleased to disabuse them:

If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult, much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.

If Republicans thought the results of the 2010 election were a mandate to attack unions, public opinion polls indicate they grossly miscalculated. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Republicans, in Wisconsin and probably elsewhere, will pay a political price for this– in recall elections and in the 2012 general election. Riled-up union members are a potent political force– something that perhaps the GOP has forgotten in recent years.

Writing in The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne makes a point that Republican leaders would be wise to note:

Here’s the key to the Wisconsin battle: For the first time in a long time, blue-collar Republicans – once known as Reagan Democrats – have been encouraged to remember what they think is wrong with conservative ideology. Working-class voters, including many Republicans, want no part of Walker’s war.

A nationwide Pew Research Center survey released last week, for example, showed Americans siding with the unions over Walker by a margin of 42 percent to 31 percent. Walker’s 31 percent was well below the GOP’s typical base vote because 17 percent of self-described Republicans picked the unions over their party’s governor.

At my request, Pew broke the numbers down by education and income and, sure enough, Walker won support from fewer than half of Republicans in two overlapping groups: those with incomes under $50,000 and those who did not attend college. Walker’s strongest support came from the wealthier and those with college educations, i.e., country club Republicans.

Republicans cannot afford to hemorrhage blue-collar voters. In a seminal article in the Weekly Standard six years ago, conservative writers Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat observed: "This is the Republican Party of today – an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working-class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement."

Put aside that I favor the policies Douthat and Salam criticize. Their electoral point is dead on. In 2010, working-class whites gave Republicans a 30-point lead over Democrats in House races. That’s why the Wisconsin fight is so dangerous to the conservative cause: Many working-class Republicans still have warm feelings toward unions, and Walker has contrived to remind them of this.

In 1970 union construction workers in New York may have been pleased to beat up long-haired antiwar protesters, but they would have fought like hell to protect their collective bargaining rights.

I worked with local unions for more than a dozen years in St. Louis, Missouri, and I can assure you that it’s more than just the “union bosses” (who happen to be democratically elected) who care about these issues. Missouri tends to be a Republican-leaning state, especially in presidential elections. But in 1978, anti-union interests got a “right to work” initiative (which would have outlawed union shops) on the statewide ballot. Rank-and-file union members recognized it as the threat to their livelihoods that it was, and campaigned strenuously against it among their non-union friends, relatives and neighbors. “Right to work” was defeated with 60 percent of the vote.

Anti-union Republicans should hold the high-fives.

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