All eyes are on Governor Scott Walker and the Badger State, but a detached observer should note that there are deep political changes sweeping the entire industrial rust belt. The idea that anti-union sentiment was limited to quirky Madison, Wisconsin, disappeared last week when Ohio became the first state in the Midwest to end basic public union rights.
Yes, it was Ohio — not Wisconsin — that became the first state to actually begin stripping government workers of the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining. Ohio’s size makes it impressive that it is happening there: it has double the number of Wisconsin’s unionized workers, nearly 665,000.
Certainly, Wisconsin was the first to reveal the disconnect between working class voters and government unions, but it will not be the last. With states facing deep debt and generously paid government workers, it now appears that traditionally pro-union households are prepared to adopt an anti-union stance. If so, there is the possibility the Midwest may become a new conservative coalition with pro-union working class families, a seismic political revolution.
Since the days of Richard Nixon, conservative political strategists banked their political preservation on the South and West, and these areas still constitute a powerful base. The South was never strongly pro-union — it is dotted with right-to-work states. Japanese and European automakers haven’t selected Detroit for new manufacturing plants, they chose places like Tupelo, Mississippi, Spartanburg, South Carolina and West Point, Georgia.
Yet in Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Pennsylvania the anti-union sentiment is sweeping historically pro-union bastions. There are many reasons why blue collar workers are alienated from their union brethren, and a big part of the reason is the region’s deindustrialization: the closures in the rust belt pulled blue collars out of the union culture.
The idea of a deep transformational political change in the Democratic rust belt was introduced to me by progressive columnist Harold Meyerson. Speaking before the 2010 election, he explained with some sorrow that there was a “triangle area” in the Midwest that was no longer captive to the unions:
From Pennsylvania up to Wisconsin and down to Missouri you have what’s now the post-industrial Midwest, which also is the post-unionized Midwest.
The loss had a major effect on the ability of unions to communicate with their members. And as factories closed down, so too did unions:
The unions served as a vehicle of communication, in a more progressive direction. You still have the folks there, but neither the factories nor the unions are there anymore.
The union communication wasn’t just an occasional email or flyer. It was daily contact to propagandize, persuade, and sometimes to apply a little pressure or even intimidation. It was a cultural connection. More than a dozen years have passed since many Midwesterners have lived in the union petri dish, and since then they’ve been living in the real world. Now they feel as if government union workers are picking their pocket.
U.S. News & World Report columnist Peter Roff illustrates the Wisconsin taxpayer antipathy towards their fellow unionized public sector worker: by astounding margins ranging from 66% to 79%, vast majorities believe unionized government workers must pay more for their health insurance and contribute more for their pension plans, and limited pay raises should be tied to the inflation rate.
But there is another underlying reason why Democrats have been losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Midwest. Simply put, they have contempt for blue-collar workers. Shortly around the time of Al Gore’s presidential candidacy, Democratic elites began to write off working class Americans who lived in the “flyover states.” They did not fit into the cultural vision of party activists who were enthusiastic about pacifism, environmentalism, or racial and gender issues.
Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic analyst of voting trends, sounded a call to arms about the abandonment of blue-collar workers in the Democratic Party. In 2000 he wrote a book hailed in some Democratic circles about the decline of America’s white working class and its contribution to the Democratic Party. Texieira argued they were the key to any future election. Nevertheless, he also argued that Obama could win the presidential race without winning of a majority of white blue-collar Americans. Republicans are “dependent on a super-majority of the white working class to cobble together a majority coalition,” Teixeira wrote. He suggests Democrats can prevail if they only slice off a small amount of blue-collar workers to their side.
John Harwood wrote in the New York Times in early 2008 that part of the new Democratic strategy was to deny conservatives super-majorities with the working class. Referring to Teixeira’s strategy, Harwood asked:
How much blue-collar support would Mr. Obama need? Not a majority, said Mr. Teixeira. Though blue-collar Democrats once represented a centerpiece of the New Deal coalition, they have shrunk as a proportion of the information age-economy and as a proportion of the Democratic base.
Harwood points out that Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote while losing 23% of the white working class vote. John Kerry ran close even though he lost the blue-collar vote to Bush by 17%. If Obama only won 10-12 percent of the white working class and won huge majorities with minority voters, Harwood estimated there was the mathematical possibility he could become president.
Now a revolution may be occurring in the heartland of the United States: will organized labor win in these crucial battleground states, or will taxpayers? We will know before the year is out.