- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2010

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

A question missing from the considerable post-election discussion is this: What happened to labor? During the past few election cycles, much attention has been devoted to the key role of unions. With their plentiful resources, campaign know-how and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, they’ve been a formidable force.

Democrats have relied on unions as their logistical troops, Republicans have castigated them, and business organizations have battled them while respecting their prowess.

In 2006 and 2008, labor took second place to no one in producing a Democrat-led Congress and then installing Democrats in the White House. In those pivotal elections, fully one-quarter of all votes came from union households - and 75 percent went to labor-endorsed candidates. Without labor’s vote, those elections would have been anybody’s call.

So, what happened to labor’s vaunted clout early last month? Did labor fail to meet the high bar it set in recent elections? Is a diminished union movement the reason the GOP captured the House, gained in the Senate and generally gave Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid a “shellacking?”

Hardly.

Labor equaled its past efforts in terms of resources, volunteers, phone-banking, precinct-canvassing, distribution of literature and one-on-one meetings at job sites. And the impact was powerful. Union members went 64 percent to 36 percent for labor-endorsed candidates - a full 19 percentage points above nonunion voters.

Although the support of union members for labor-endorsed candidates fell from the 75 percent level of 2006 and 2008 - marking a return to where labor had been before 2006 - this followed the overall pattern of the 2010 election, with fewer people generally supporting Democrats. The important point is that the margin between union and nonunion voters remained roughly where it’s been the past couple of cycles - particularly impressive given the challenges a weak economy and high unemployment rates pose for working people.

Also, among the subset of voters for whom the economy was the top issue, pro-worker candidates secured an astonishing 51 percentage points more support from union voters than from nonunion voters.

But labor still lost the election. So what lessons can unions draw from the Nov. 2 results?

The first is that, clearly, it’s not sufficient simply to rally the troops, which long has been labor’s strength. That works in close elections, but it can’t overcome the type of conservative tsunami we’ve just observed. That’s all the more true given that labor’s share of the population is shrinking. A few decades ago, more than a third of workers belonged to a union; now about an eighth do.

This means that to boost its effectiveness, labor must reach the general electorate. That’s not easy, because laws circumscribe what unions can do to reach out to nonunion folks during elections. And the media, which is often labeled as liberal but is more accurately described as elitist, largely ignores labor. When was the last time you saw a union leader or worker on the rarified air of the Sunday-morning talk shows?

What labor must do to maintain its political effectiveness is figure out how to communicate with nonunion voters, especially those who are concerned about jobs and the economy. Labor’s message, properly packaged, is a powerful one. It shouldn’t be difficult to show that crafting fair-trade deals that let Americans compete on an even footing is in the national interest. That reforming labor laws so a robust labor movement can balance corporate power is essential to restoring a balanced industrial-relations system. That tax laws encouraging employers to move jobs overseas cost jobs. That the 16 workplace fatalities we average daily must be reduced. That historically, a strong labor movement has produced a growing middle class.

Looking ahead, should Republicans, conservatives and business groups fear a greater labor impact in 2012?

That’s tough to say this far out. Labor leaders will be determined to prevent a conservative sweep of Congress and the White House. But rank-and-file union members may be harder to motivate after the disappointments of the past two years.

And labor often has been woefully slow to make needed changes, such as those suggested above about reaching the broader population. At the same time, Richard L. Trumka is a more creative and aggressive leader than the AFL-CIO has had in a while.

So, stay tuned.

- Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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