On Unions, a Narrative Shattered

Jeff Alworth

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).

  • (Show?)

    Jeff, great post.

    I think you've touched the live wire of something important; that even Fox-watching Americans have some kind of multi-generational shared memory of how much worse (even than today) things were for Americans that worked for a living before the development (I won't say ascendence) of US labor unions in the early days of coal worker and garment worker strikes.

    Wisconsin is fascinating. And terrifying, because there's so much that might go wrong, of course. But thrilling all the same, because of the possibilities, yes?


  • (Show?)

    Americans have no historical memory of how and why unions came into existence. It takes a little Mussolini like Walker, filled with hubris and self-aggrandizement, to remind us why unions and the right of collective bargaining exist. Unions created the middle class, and without them the middle class will cease to exist and America will turn into a nation of serfs wholly owned by the multinational feudal lords like the Koch brothers.

    • (Show?)

      Agreed for the most part, though I posit unions were not the only key element that created the biggest middle class in history. I posit that things such as the New Deal programs as well as the post-war programs such as the GI Bill had a HUGE impact on fostering a robust middle class.

      It is both the efforts of unions, and the public investment in social programs by the Government together are the two main prongs of what the general public now has little working memory of, which harnessed the raw pre-New Deal market and created the middle class which has been the foundation of our standard of living and way of life in the modern era.

      • (Show?)

        "I posit that things such as the New Deal programs as well as the post-war programs such as the GI Bill had a HUGE impact on fostering a robust middle class."


        Agreed, and well stated.

  • (Show?)

    Jeff, have you followed the conversation at themonkeycage.org? There is some very good analysis of the relationship between unionization and wage and budget levels.

  • (Show?)

    Small point: How would union members vote 61-43% for Democrats? Seems to add up to 104% unless I'm missing something.

    • (Show?)

      Thanks, Troy--and good catch. It was 61-37%. I've corrected it.

      Another fact I failed to mention but should have was turnout. Union households made up 30% of the vote in '08, but only 26% in 2010. My guess is that the union vote will turn out massively in 2012 thanks to Walker's union busting.

  • (Show?)

    Off subject, but Jeff, you have such a loose and readable writing style. It makes me jealous! Good post.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks very much for this piece.

connect with blueoregon