- - Tuesday, December 20, 2011


One of the most memorable cartoons I saw about the ending of the Soviet Union 20 years ago showed a fellow painting a sign on a wall expressing the thought: “Workers of the world … aw, forget it.”

Well, America’s workers today could be forgiven if they adopt a similar attitude to the current presidential contest.

Labor’s frustrations with the Obama administration have been periodically chronicled in this space over the past couple of years.

No Employee Free Choice Act, too few jobs, an administration replete with Wall Street and banking types, free trade deals left unrenegotiated, and more.

If labor hasn’t rebelled publicly, it’s because it previously endured eight years of what it deemed the most anti-worker administration in U.S. history. Moreover, it’s seen some positives from this president, from several good appointments to the saving of the auto industry. And it has kept hoping that better things are just around the corner. Perhaps most of all, it didn’t want to boost the common foes it shares with the administration.

But few in the labor movement are confident about the likelihood of inspiring rank-and-file workers to repeat their historic role in the 2008 campaign, when they knocked on more doors and made more phone calls than ever before - and then on Election Day proved to be the difference by providing 25 percent of all votes. Union households went three-quarters for Barack Obama, opening up an election that otherwise would have extremely tight.

Yet, working folks lukewarm about Mr. Obama this time around find little of interest on the Republican side, where the candidates seem intent on outdoing each other in criticizing government, exalting the wealthy, closing the borders or sounding tough on foreign affairs. Not much there for labor’s rank-and-file members - including the Reagan Democrats/NASCAR dads key to electing Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush - who this time around want to know how they’re going to take care of their families.

To some degree, this lack of appeal to the labor vote reflects both parties’ election circumstances. GOP candidates traditionally run to the right in primaries, and that tendency is pronounced this go-around, given the competitiveness of the race, the impact within the party of the anti-government tea party, and the general national sentiment. The GOP’s labor imperative at the moment seems not to be to appeal to the 15 million union members and their families but rather to whack the National Labor Relations Board. Meanwhile, with a Democratic incumbent in the White House and no challenger anticipated, nothing is tugging Mr. Obama to the left.

But if working people find the Republican field uninspiring, it’s also because of the individuals running - and not running. Borrowing a line, Mitt Romney looks like the guy who fired you. Newt Gingrich just looks scary, plus he wants to suspend child labor laws and replace janitors with impoverished children.

Mike Huckabee’s Main Street economic appeal would have facilitated inroads among Reagan Democrats. Sarah Palin, with her gutsy demeanor and her union husband, would have resonated.

Perhaps the lone GOP candidate with potential broad appeal to blue-collar folks is Rick Santorum, who is strong on the cultural issues many working class conservatives care about and, oh by the way, is the only Republican talking about rebuilding the country’s manufacturing base. But unless lightning strikes in Iowa, it’s difficult to see him emerging from the pack.

Let’s be clear: The unions will endorse Mr. Obama, because he will be better for their members than his opponent. And most blue-collar or other union members who go to the polls will vote for him. The uncertainty concerns their enthusiasm, their energy and their turnout.

What could get them revved up would be a GOP nominee who attempts to make them the scapegoat for a tough economy and for taxpayers’ struggles, as several Midwestern Republican governors have done. That in turn would give Mr. Obama an edge in industrial swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. If the Republicans aren’t going to even try to appeal to working folks, they might at least want to avoid doing what the Democrats will find difficult - motivate them to go in droves to the polls to vote for the president.

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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