- Associated Press - Saturday, March 5, 2011

RACINE, Wis. (AP) — There once was a time when Harry and Nancy Harrington — their teenage children in tow — walked the picket line outside the nursing home where she was a medical aide, protesting the lack of a pension plan for the unionized work force.

But those days of family solidarity are gone.

Harry now blames years of union demands for an exodus of manufacturing jobs from this blue-collar city on the shore of Lake Michigan. He praises new Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for attempting to strip public employee unions of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights. And he wishes police would clear out the pro-union protesters now in their third week of occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol.

“I’m sorry, but the unions want to yell, they want to intimidate,” says Harry Harrington, 69, as he sets a coffee cup down next to another newspaper headline about the union demonstrations.

“They want to be heard,” retorts Nancy Harrington, 66, who fears a weakened union would jeopardize the teaching career of their now 38-year-old daughter.

The Harringtons typify the new national reality for labor unions. Support is no longer a sure thing from the middle class— not even in a city long considered a union stronghold in a state that gave birth to the nation’s largest public employee union. National polls show that the portion of the public that views unions favorably has dropped to near historic lows in recent years, dipping below 50 percent by some accounts.

But surveys also show a public uneasy with attempts to weaken union bargaining rights by emboldened Republican governors who swept into power in the 2010 elections amid concerns about state finances. A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this week found more adults nationwide sided with unions than the governor in the Wisconsin dispute.

For unions, the political standoffs occurring in states such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio and are a make or break moment — a chance to repair tarnished luster or risk sinking toward irrelevancy among the American public.

In Racine, a nearly two-hour drive southeast of the epicenter of the union controversy in Madison, the question of the union’s appropriate role has divided husband and wife, mother and child, co-workers and friends. It’s the hot topic on editorial pages, at coffee shops, even at the craft club that meets in the community center at Roosevelt Park, where a dozen retired women recently were talking over the top of each other about union powers while knitting socks and hats.

Among these women, at least, the pro-union protesters are right and Wisconsin’s governor is wrong. Their group includes a retired Racine public school teacher who in 1977 joined in a teacher walkout that lasted more than a month. Racine schools shut down again for one day this February when a quarter of their teachers were absent in a show of support for pro-union protesters.

Yet the teachers’ union is not the power it once was in the Racine area. Despite a well-funded media campaign, the union’s candidate, Democratic state Sen. John Lehmen, of Racine — a former high school teacher — was ousted by Republican challenger Van Wanggaard in last fall’s election. District voters also picked Walker over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett.

When the teachers walked out last month in nearby Kenosha, substitutes such as Kevin Kreckling quickly stepped forward. “I felt a little torn_I wanted to have solidarity with the teachers, but I have to make money, too,” said Kreckling, 30, the son of a union painter and who is studying to be a teacher at Concordia University in Mequon.

The decline in union power is perhaps best symbolized by the area near Roosevelt Park, where a monument dedicated by the AFL-CIO honors the Depression-era president who signed a 1935 federal law guaranteeing collective bargaining rights. Not far away is a tall chain link fence protecting the vacant plot of the old Case Corp. farm equipment factory, which was razed a few years ago after the company merged with another corporation and then downsized.

CNH Global N.V., the successor company, still operates in the area. And the city remains the home of S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., which makes cleaning products and bug sprays, and vehicle radiator maker Modine Manufacturing Co. Yet numerous other companies have scaled back or shut down, resulting in the loss of a third of Racine’s manufacturing jobs in the past 20 years, according to federal Bureau of Labor Service statistics.

“It’s been a real blood-letting of companies,” said Racine Mayor John Dickert, adding optimistically: “But we’re turning that around.”

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