During his 1948 presidential campaign against underdog Democrat Harry S. Truman, Republican Thomas E. Dewey was on the campaign trail. As a crowd surged toward the back of his train, an irritated Dewey told the crowd, “That’s the first lunatic I’ve had for an engineer. He probably should be shot at sunrise, but we’ll let him off this time since nobody was hurt.” Lee Tindle, the 54-year-old engineer, told a reporter, “I think about as much of Dewey as I did before, and that’s not much.” Democrats chalked “Lunatic Engineers for Truman” on train after train, and hounded the candidate with references to it until the end of Truman’s winning campaign.
When Republican Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan tried to privatize trash collection after his election in 1993, the city union that represented sanitation workers had them politely visit the homes of the people they served. Their reception was extremely warm, and soon city hall was besieged with calls to keep the system in the hands of the public. Riordan’s plan ended up in the trash bin.
In December 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger faced a group of nurses protesting his decision to maintain large staffing ratios in hospitals. He blithely called them “special interests” and said, “I always kick their butt.” Soon he was facing a challenge from the 5-foot-tall and very effective head of the nurses’ union, Rose Ann DeMoro, who ultimately made him eat his words. The governor learned that conservative rhetoric against unions was no match for the public’s approval of police officers, trash collectors, nurses and others who keep the lights on and the doors open.
This month, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker rammed through a radical bill to gut collective bargaining for his state’s public employees. Just like Schwarzenegger, Walker underestimated the hornet’s nest his attack on public employees would create. Over the course of several weeks, tens of thousands of protesters crowded the state capitol. By the end, farmers were driving tractors in support of the unions. Despite Walker’s attempt to split the police from the other unions, most law enforcement sided with the protesters. As of this week, anti-Walker organizers had collected nearly half of the signatures needed to recall eight Republican members of the state senate. A signature drive to place a recall of the governor on the ballot will begin in January under a state law that guarantees no recalls for one year after taking office.
Labor may not be what it used to be, and Republicans keep thinking that unions will fold like a cheap suit when attacked. But while Democrats in government do indeed tend to cave in to Republican bullies, the unions are the party’s fighting core. Their fighting spirit, as seen in Wisconsin, has done more to revive the Democratic Party than the entire national party leadership since 2008.
It’s easy to underestimate unions. They are demonized by Republicans and often kept at arms’ length by Democrats. The national media pay little attention to them. A crowd of 80,000 people in Madison is likely to get less coverage than 25 Tea Partiers. It would take divine intervention for the Sunday talk shows to put a labor leader on the stage. (That would take time away from the thoughts of John McCain.)
But let go of the stereotypes. Union members are not just the men with blue-collar jobs that we imagine. Even in the early days, women were central to their development (see the story on the anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire on Page 14); now they include men and women, blue-collar and white-collar workers, many with a college degree and from diverse backgrounds. A 2009 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that nearly half of today’s union members are women, and nearly half of union members have a college degree. One out of eight are immigrants. Latinos now make up more than 12 percent of the unionized work force, with African Americans at 13 percent. The labor movement is probably the only place in American politics where white men with blue-collar jobs are joining forces with blacks and Latinos and women, with white-collar workers and immigrants. That fact alone should worry governors like Walker trying to fight recalls.
In a number of states, Republicans now control both the governorship and the legislature. They are cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations (for the people who bankrolled their elections with the freedom offered by the Citizens United decision). They are doing this in order to create a fiscal crisis that will allow them to justify cutting programs for working people and crushing unions. Republican regimes are moving to make it harder for working-class and minority voters to participate, through voter ID laws. This is serious stuff.
Walker is the best known, but not even the worst. That honor belongs to Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, who is about to sign legislation that will give him close to dictatorial power over local governments. The law would strengthen the power of emergency managers, who would be able to step in and overrule elected local officials and even eliminate local governments and school districts. According to a March 9 article in the Detroit Free Press, “the law would include new triggers to allow the state to step in. For example, a city or school district that misses a payday or ends a year with a deficit of 5 percent or more” could find itself subject to state control.
So much for the “home rule” that cities and towns earned more than 100 years ago. Talk is starting of a Michigan recall campaign, and in Ohio there is movement for a statewide ballot measure to overturn union-busting legislation.
Unions are not perfect. There are unions whose influence disturbs me. (Don’t get me started on the state prison guards.) Sometimes unions fight hard for protections I don’t much like. Unions sometimes seem not to give a fig about public opinion, and sometimes that hurts them. But they are the only ones within the Democratic coalition willing to get their boots scuffed up when the game is on the line.
If unions themselves may not always be popular, the people they represent are, and we need them to protect us from the scarifying assault on democracy that is emanating from the 2010 mid-term elections. Somebody has to keep the Koch brothers and other corporate raiders from taking over our democracy.
If the Wisconsin battle has proved anything, it is that we are way better off with unions, because they are willing to stand up and fight for the simple right to maintain a middle-class standard of living for ordinary people.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.