I was listening to some week-old podcasts yesterday and came across The Political Scene from the New Yorker. Ryan Lizza, Hendrik Hertzberg, and George Packer were discussing issues economic, and they came to the situation in Wisconsin. Even though it was only a week old, the podcast had become a wonderful little time capsule. Recorded before a raft of surveys showed that Americans broadly support unions, the three pored over what they assumed were the bones of an extinct beast. Here's Packer, describing the "problem."
"The problem is, the unions have really not been able to articulate why this should matter to someone who works two jobs in Columbus, Ohio, neither of which is a union job, neither of which is a public sector job, and both of which pay very little and have lousy benefits. Why should this matter to her?"
I'm not picking on Packer--he is restating a case that I think almost everyone, from far right to far left, assumed to be true: unions are wildly unpopular, most pointedly with non-union working people, and the most unpopular are public-sector unions. And why not? Unions have been declining for decades, Republicans have gotten a lot of traction by demonizing state workers, and unions have not generally found a lot of support in polling.
But then a funny thing happened. Sometimes it's very difficult to tell what people think until the choice is made starkly clear. When Wisconsin's governor decided not only to extract a 7% compensation cut from state workers but bust their unions, too, people weren't behind him. In poll after poll conducted in the last few days, respondents have voiced strong opposition to stripping these rights: 62-33% (WSJ/NBC), 61-33% (Gallup), 60-33% (NYT/CBS) against.
Call this a political moment of clarity. So much of what we thought we knew about unions was wrong. Since Reagan began beating back unions in the 80s, Republicans have become comfortable with the idea that the broader public shares their hatred of them. No one ever lost an election by beating up on the unions. This seemed further confirmed by the financial meltdown of '08. The only populist rage that resulted came from the tea party--and they directed it at government (and government workers). I concluded the same thing everyone else did: if this doesn't provoke support for lower- and middle-class workers, forget about it.
The resentment Packer alludes to may be there (as someone active in a public sector union for a decade, I know the hatred was real and vivid), but it is isolated. Most workers feel at least a kinship to other workers, if not solidarity. Governor Walker unwittingly created the perfect real-world test of the unpopular-union theory--and politics will change, perhaps fundamentally--thanks to what we've learned. In 2010, union households voted 61-43% [correction: 61-37] for Democrats. Good, but not spectacular. The Wisconsin case--neither the first nor the harshest--changed things by making it clear to union members just how unhinged and unfriendly Republicans are. Everyone is now clear on the stakes. Voting in 2012 will reflect it.
It's too early to know how this will affect policies, political positions, and the parties, but one thing's for sure: we have a whole new set of facts to work with. Change is the one certainty.
Update. Paul Gronke points me to a great piece by a Wisconsin political scientist who offers insight into the psychology and politics of Badger State. Elsewhere, Joe Conason writes in very much the same vein today, more deeply than I. In today's news, Wisconsin state senators ordered the arrest of the 14 Dems who've fled the state (though the warrants are pretty clearly not legal).