Union households are probably the largest single contingent in the Democratic caucus. They still make up over a quarter of all Democrats, and are more likely to vote than your average Democrat, so their strength is even greater than that. More importantly, they make up a huge percentage of the ground game, financial backing, and organized grassroots. But in recent victories for the GOP in the Massachussetts Senate race and the New Jersey gubernatorial race, union members have been less likely to tow the party line.
Images on YouTube of union paid protesters who were supposed to be supporting Coakley waving Scott Brown signs, and the shock of the NJ teachers union that it needed to spend time and effort persuading its own members to oppose Christie are reflective of a strong new, political undercurrent. Tapping into that undercurrent could be a key to the GOP political prospects moving forward.
Nevertheless, with union leadership plotting to spend over a hundred million dollars on this election, have over 1,500 paid full time operatives, and plan to make over 10 million phone calls, unions remain one of the most powerful forces in our nation. Even though they now represent perhaps only 8% of the workforce, where once it was 35%, their clout remains strong. Depsite all this commitment from union brass, however, their voters only broke for Obama in 2008 by 63-37. That 26 point gap was almost certainly smaller in 2009 and looks to be smaller in 2010.
So why is that? I offer three key reasons:
1. The Democrats have failed to advance the economy in the ways that matter to union members. According to this article - poverty is higher than it has been since 1994. (Interesting to me that the last time poverty rates were so high was when the Democrats last lost the House to the GOP, and also that the poverty rates did not climb upwards again until after Democrats retook the House in 2006. If the GOP is smart, they could make an issue of this). A similar pattern can be found in unemployment numbers. Cost of living has increased under the Democratic regime, liberal trade policies have hurt union members, poverty has increased, and liberal social programs have made the marginal tax rate and upward climb steeper than ever. The job security, empowerment to create a better life for one's children, and economic self-determination that had fueled union growth 75 years ago has been stripped from the movement. The lesson - the more the GOP can emphasize its ability to provide a stable economy with job growth, upward potential mobility for the average working man, and the American dream that one who works hard here can make it, the more inroads the GOP will make with this electorate.
2. Union leadership has become increasingly disconnected and ideological. In the landmark Beck case before the NLRB, an industrial compromise was decreed whereby union members would be forced to pay dues but they could object to paying dues for a union's political activities. The unions, in principle, were supposed to use political dues to advance politics which inured to their members' benefit. Now though, union leaders use those funds as their own political blank check. The safeguards, checks and balances have failed. The lesson - conservatives have an opening I believe to seek to reach out to union populations and make the argument their monies could be better spent on candidates that advance their interests - which do not necessarily coincide with increasing unionization or whatever liberal agenda the Democrats are currently pushing (i.e. Obamacare).
3. The tea party influence New and eclectic tea party grassroots movements offer alternative, common-sense outlets for political action. Their frequent themes of holding government accountable to the people, returning to original Constitutional principles, and to stop wasteful spending appeal on a basic level to your average working man. As such, they are competing for the same hearts and minds the unions are. Lesson - GOP should embrace tea partiers' and emphasize how conservative policies do a better job of governing in a financially responsible fashion and upholding original Constitutional principles.