TAMPA, Fla. — Union bashing has been a unifying theme at this year's Republican National Convention, as few topics have generated louder, longer and more robust cheers and applause during keynote speeches.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bragged he wasn't afraid to take on "the third rail of politics public sector unions."
And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker got spirited response from the convention audience Tuesday when he talked about his polarizing anti-union "reforms."
Yet the amped up anti-union rhetoric exhibited in Tampa this week contrasts with the tone of past conventions, when the party in large part avoided confrontations with organized labor.
In 2000, the GOP went so far as to invite Teamsters President James P. Hoffa to its convention. A dozen prominent Republicans spent two hours wooing the labor leader at a reception then, hoping to win an endorsement for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential bid, or at least prevent the labor organization from backing Democratic candidate Al Gore. The tactic failed, as the union later endorsed Mr. Gore.
President Reagan, despite a clash early in his administration with an air traffic controllers union, also was deft at courting swaths of blue collar union voters by emphasizing cultural issues without overtly attacking organized labor.
Even 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, during a speech at her party's convention that year, praised her husband Todd as being a "proud member" of the United Steelworkers union.
But this year, the party has appeared to go out of its way to antagonize organized labor, despite hopes of winning union-heavy states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley boasted that airplanes at Boeing's new plant in her state are "made with pride" by "6,000 nonunion employees" — a comment that won her thunderous cheers.
Public sector unions have received the brunt of the Republican criticism.
An increased perception among voters that public-sector union pay and benefits are bankrupting state and local government has boosted Republican confidence to attack the groups, said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett.
"Politically, [Republicans] don't feel the need to restrain themselves even as much as in past election cycles because the average voter, the average swing voters [don't] have a lot of sympathy right now [for public- sector unions] because of the bad economy," he said.
The 2012 Republican Party platform calls for a "salute [to] the Republican governors and state legislators who have saved their states from fiscal disaster by reforming their laws governing public-employee unions."
Eric Opiela, a delegate from Karnes City, Texas, said most delegates in Tampa think that public-sector unions generally are "destructive to [government] reform and in cutting the deficit."
"And I think public opinion, not just among the delegates but nationally, is strongly in favor of limiting the influence of public- sector unions," he said.
Mr. Jewett said Republicans usually make the distinction the unions themselves — not their members — are to blame.
"They'll say that teachers unions are standing in the way of reform but that average teachers we love and respect and that it's a bad system that's holding them back," he said.
Case in point, Mr. Christie in his speech accused Democrats of propping up teachers unions ahead of the interest of children, saying that Democrats "believe in teacher's unions. We [Republicans] believe in teachers."
But it's nonsensical to separate union from their members, said Karen White, national political director for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.
"The unions exist to give educators a voice to advocate on behalf of their students so that we can have things like small class size and health care in schools for kids," she said.
Ms. White added that teachers unions are unfairly targeted, as Republicans often are reluctant to publicly attack police and firefighters public-sector unions.
"We've got to stop the name calling, we've got to stop the finger-pointing and we've got to get on to the business of educating students in this country," she said.
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