Being a union member and voting Republican is like being an insect and voting for the Raid/Terminix ticket.
This is something that my father used to always tell me when I was coming of age in politics. I never understood it either; even though I was much more conservative in my youth than I am now (though always a Democrat; I will likely cover that in a later blog post), I could never understand why members of a labor union would cast a ballot for a party that actively works to destroy them.
My first taste of the political forces working against labor was as a kid. Congress was debating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which folks like my father steadfastly opposed. My father was someone who organized against it, calling his members of Congress and Senators to tell them to vote no, and getting others to do the same. Eventually, however, it passed by a 234-200 margin in the House, and a 61-38 margin in the Senate, and was signed by President Bill Clinton on December 8, 1993 (my father later toured the Maquiladoras, a free-trade zone in northern Mexico, as a part of a fact-finding mission; I wil discuss that in a later blog post as well). Despite this, I thought that most, if not all, union members were Democrats. It seemed like all unions endorsed Democrats (boy, was I wrong about THAT one), and all of the people that my father worked with were Democrats, so it made sense to me. That is, until 2002.
In 2002, my father worked on the Labor 2002 coalition in Minnesota. As such, I would go out and volunteer with him on doorknocks of known union households. We were doorknocking in the first-ring Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park when we happened upon a door that was opened by a middle-aged man. We were looking for his wife, who was a teacher. He informed us that his wife could not come to the door, but that they would both be voting Republican in the general election. My father tried to do some convincing, to no avail. “Okay,” I thought, “maybe she just did not feel like coming to the door, and her husband misspoke for her. Whatever.” We marked them as “Leaning Republican”, and moved on. A few houses later, though, there was no mistaking it. The person that we were doorknocking answered the door, and he told us that he would be voting Republican in November. Again, my father tried to convince him, but his reply was: “Roger Moe [the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nominee for Governor] is pro-abortion, and I’m not for killing babies. And that goes for the rest of them, too!”
After muttering something about outsourcing, we left. I was floored. How could this person seriously look at the Republican Party and see a friend in their ranks? Sure, the guy was a little older and looked to be nearing retirement, but he had undoubtedly benefited from a union wage, judging by the neighborhood that he was living in. He was probably gearing up to retire on a pension, too. There is not one sector of the Republican Party that was going to look out for either of those things, yet he would become one of the nearly 1 million Minnesotans that would send State Rep. Tim Pawlenty (R-Eagan) to the Governor’s Mansion and send former Mayor Norm Coleman (R-Saint Paul) to Washington for his only term in the U.S. Senate.
As I have gone through working in politics, I have found that the old Republican union member was not alone. In 2008, John McCain earned 38 percent of the vote from those in union households; Romney earned 40 percent. In 2010, Pennsylvanians who lived in union households went 42 percent for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett, who was the sitting Attorney General. Hell, 38 percent of people in labor households voted for Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) in a recall election brought about by his advocacy for eliminating collective bargaining for state employees. That chunk was not insignificant, as Mother Jones points out. While union density numbers in the South are typically too small to conduct exit polls on, one can imagine that union members bend more Republican in Alabama than in a recall election brought about by unions in Wisconsin.
So what gives? Why are union members voting Republican?
- Could it be social issues? As I stated above, the older fellow stated that he was not “for killing babies”, and that drove his vote in 2002. Working-class voters who put social issues before their pocketbook can be pretty difficult to convince. I mean, what do you say to someone who values a fetus over their health insurance?
- Are legislative failures to blame? Labor unions had a top priority upon President Obama taking office in 2009: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). This act, which would have made it easier to form a union in a workplace, was defeated, mostly because of one U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), who refused to support the bill. As it turns out, she was strongly supported by Wal-Mart, the company for whom she now works. Speaking of Sen. Lincoln…..
- Could the White House be at fault here? In 2010, Sen. Lincoln faced a primary against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D-AR). Halter supported EFCA, and was backed by the major union federations in Arkansas. For some odd reason, President Obama backed Lincoln and cut ads for her, even though every poll showed her doing worse than Halter in the general election. It was enough, as Lincoln defeated Halter in the primary runoff. The day after the runoff, the White House went out of their way to insult unions. President Obama once stated that he would walk a picket line for workers whose collective bargaining rights were under attack. Well? Has he?
- Is lack of information about labor to blame? See this.
- Has business unionism turned the rank-and-file against labor? Business unionism is a form of labor that emphasizes collaboration with management and a top-down business-like structure. I have always known about this type of unionism, but I never really had a name for it until the imbroglio over a top labor official saying that the inflatable rat that has become a familiar sight at labor protests and strikes was to be discontinued. The reason for the decision, which appeared to have no input from the rank-and-file? To highlight labor’s “value proposition”. Huh? I have an MPA, and I do not know what that means. Why should the rank-and-file back candidates that are supported by people who never ask for their input when tactical decisions like this are made?
I am sure that there are other reasons that I am missing, but I am one that tends to think that the last question holds the key to why this is happening. If the last year and a half has taught labor anything, it should be that businesses, as well as capitalism in general, are not friends of labor. Think about Wisconsin for a second: 38 percent of people in union households voted for a guy that basically did everything that he could (some of it successfully) to destroy the benefits and protections that has made them and their families more prosperous. That cannot all be explained away by pro-lifers and emo-progs angry that President Obama has not gotten them their unicorn yet.
Labor organizing needs to be about community organizing again. Instead of donating money to elected officials who have time and again promised one thing to our organizations and done another, labor unions should put more money into letting people know about the benefits of being a member. We should not be running ads only when we are in danger; we should be a constant presence on radio and television, telling people about the “value proposition” of being a union member. And finally, we should listen to the people who matter the most: people who gather at local lodge meetings and discuss ways to better their community.
The labor movement’s “value proposition” will always be its people. When we discuss how we can strengthen the labor movement, let’s listen to what they have to say.