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The crucial role of labor in the 2012 elections

Wed, Dec 12, 2012

President Barack Obama’s reelection and the defeat of Mitt Romney, perhaps the most viciously anti-union presidential candidate in US history, were hailed by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and many other union leaders as a victory for the nation’s workers. According to American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Communication Director Chris Policano, Romney was “one of the most voracious anti-union candidates ever” with his desire to implement a national right-to-work law and to eliminate unions from the federal government. Besides defeating Romney, labor unions also mobilized their support for victorious US Senate candidates including Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), Claire McCaskill (Missouri) and Chris Murphy (Connecticut).

Additionally, in California, labor beat back Proposition 32, which would have prevented unions from devoting any union funding to political campaigns, by a 12 percentage point margin. The only major loss suffered by labor occurred in Michigan where Proposal 2, which would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state constitution, went down to defeat after big business and Republican groups donated millions of dollars in opposition. And according to Trumka, Obama would never have won Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada, and the three states’ 34 electoral votes, if not for labor’s massive efforts.

The potentially devastating effects of a Romney victory spurred unions to strategically devote their resources in key battleground states where they could make a difference. Dismissed as an increasingly irrelevant force when the unions failed to successfully unseat Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in the June 2012 recall election, labor demonstrated it could still flex its political muscle on the national scene despite declining union density.

.During the 2012 presidential election campaign’s last four days, an estimated 128,000 labor union volunteers planned to knock on 5.5 million doors, to place 5.2 million telephone calls and to distribute some two million flyers at unionized workplaces in addition to the 12 million leaflets that had already been sent to unionists’ homes. In addition, some 2,000 union poll monitors were scheduled to work with lawyers on Election Day to insure that people were provided the opportunity to vote and were not harassed while trying to cast their ballots.

.In Ohio, perhaps the quintessential battleground state, labor launched a sophisticated canvassing effort. The unions did not have to build their ground game from scratch because labor had already successfully mobilized in defeating Senate Bill 5, designed to curtail collective bargaining rights for many of the state’s public workers, in November 2011. And with Ohio possessing a higher union density than the US as a whole (13.4% vs. 11.8%), and with many of these unionists employed in the auto industry, Romney’s deceptive television ad, referred to as “inaccurate” by Chrysler’s CEO and claiming that the Obama administration was complicit in Jeep outsourcing jobs to China, did not play well with the Ohio electorate. The AFL-CIO and Workers Voice, its affiliated super PAC, emphasized Romney’s destruction of jobs while at Bain Capital and the importance of Obama’s auto industry bailout for the Ohio economy.
Labor in Wisconsin, where a law limiting the public sector unions’ collective bargaining rights was implemented in March 2011, also became reinvigorated during this election cycle. On the Saturday prior to the election, a statewide labor canvass resulted in knocking on nearly 70,000 doors in Eau Claire, Green Bay, Kenosha, La Crosse and Racine encouraging citizens to vote for Obama and Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Moreover, Wisconsin Jobs Now, a community-labor coalition formed with the Service Employees International Union’s help, recruited 130 block captains in Milwaukee, many in the city’s poorest areas, for handing out campaign material and for transporting people to the polls.

Although the unions’ efforts were crucial to Obama’s reelection, it is unclear how committed the president will be towards labor’s cause.

In his first term, the unions were pleased with the passage of national health insurance although they remained frustrated with the Employee Free Choice Act’s failure to advance in Congress. Undoubtedly, labor’s agenda in Obama’s second term will focus on defending Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from drastic cuts. Funding levels for these programs will be on the chopping block when discussions with Republicans commence on ways to reduce the budget deficit. Labor also will push for job creation to restore the country’s infrastructure through passing the American Jobs Act. Finally, the unions would like to see immigration reform so that many undocumented immigrants have a route to achieve legalization.

.Assuming labor is successful in attaining its modest agenda, all workers, not only union members, will benefit from these efforts. Although the unions’ program is largely defensive in nature, one must be able to defend old gains before fighting for new ones. Hopefully, labor can return to the offensive in the near future.

Written by Victor G. Devinatz, StreetWise Contributor

Dr. Victor G. Devinatz is Distinguished Professor of Management, specializing in labor relations, at Illinois State University. He can be contacted at vgdevin@ilstu.edu.

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