With the two national political conventions behind us and the fall campaign under way, labor’s eventual impact is uncertain.
Let’s look a little closer.
On the Republican side, labor watched the unfolding of a testy primary campaign in which candidates often differed — whether on immigration, America as the world’s police force or the merits of one another’s background. But they all coalesced around the vilification of labor.
None did so with more relish than the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, who spoke frequently of “union bosses” and “labor stooges.” Nor did he stop there. Mr. Romney referred to the National Labor Relations Board — a federal agency tasked with safeguarding the rights of employees and employers in the workplace and with conducting worker elections on whether to have a union — as “a rogue agency.”
Four years ago, the tone was quite different. Labor was ignored more than attacked, and GOP contender Mike Huckabee was an advocate for labor, speaking to several union conventions, garnering some rare endorsements in the Republican primaries and ridiculing his rivals for asserting that ordinary people were faring well economically.
After securing this year’s nomination, Mr. Romney selected as his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who doesn’t hide his disdain for the public-sector unions that now are the majority within the American labor movement.
But if the Romney-Ryan ticket is a non-starter, President Obama has left unions highly disappointed. Not only did he fail to deliver on his promise to sign into law the Employee Free Choice Act — labor’s top legislative priority — but he also compiled a poor record on jobs. Many union members wonder why they worked so hard to help elect him in 2008.
Compounding things, the Democrats held their convention in North Carolina, whose widespread antipathy to labor manifests itself in the nation’s lowest level of unionization. If labor needed a reminder that Democratic leaders tend to take its considerable campaign help for granted, here it was.
Now it’s true that the United Auto Workers were highly visible at the Charlotte convention, waving their UAW signs whenever a speaker noted the auto bailout and the jobs it saved. It’s also true that several speakers mentioned the UAW by name, a rare occurrence at a national political convention. But all this talk — while welcome to labor — was aimed more at highlighting the administration’s role in saving the U.S. auto industry than at promoting labor’s interests.
So, where does labor fit into the campaign? We know that labor leaders have endorsed Mr. Obama and have urged union members to support the Democratic ticket. Unions will be heavily engaged in the typical voter education and get-out-the-vote activities from now until Election Day, spending hundreds of millions of dollars along the way.
What we don’t know is how this will translate into actual votes.
While union voters likely will favor the Democratic ticket by the approximately 3-1 ratio seen in recent elections, even a small decline — in percentage and/or turnout — could matter in closely contested states. And remember, the union vote often is pivotal in industrial swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
At the same time, no one is better at the practical side of politics than the labor movement. If enthusiasm for Mr. Obama is palpably diminished this time, antipathy toward Mr. Romney could well push union folks to the polls. So, too, could the war on labor waged by several Republican governors — including in swing states.
So, with base turnout likely to be determinant, given the small number of undecided voters, a labor movement that feels slighted still could prove pivotal — in one direction or another — when the votes are counted. But it remains to be seen just how that plays out.