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John Russo

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Right-to-Work Laws and Working-Class Voters: Another Teachable Moment

Posted: 02/14/2012 4:53 pm

As a professor, I am always interested in teachable moments. When it became apparent in late 2010 that Ohio Gov. John Kasich planned to introduce legislation depriving public sector workers of basic bargaining rights, I told reporters that it was a teachable moment about the role of public sector workers. After all, they were the ones who made all other work possible.

Both organized labor and community groups quickly embraced the idea that Ohio Senate Bill 5 could be a teachable moment. They launched a hugely successful campaign to put a referendum on the bill, Issue 2, on the November ballot, and then led the fight to persuade voters to oppose the issue and overturn the bill. Kasich's attack and the forceful response to it may make it possible for Obama to win Ohio in 2012, despite economic conditions and 2010 election results that would seem to prime the state to swing to the right this time.

Another teachable moment has arrived now that Republicans have introduced Right-to-Work legislation in New Hampshire and passed it in Indiana. Similar legislation may be on the way in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. Such moves may well undermine the historic white working-class support of Republicans, and that could bode well for Obama's re-election.

RTW legislation differs from past Republican attacks on unions. As labor historian Joseph McCartin has recently chronicled, while courting union endorsements and union voters, Republicans have pursued strategies that, over the last 30 years, have quietly undermined administrative agencies and government policies that facilitated the formation of unions. The result has been the erosion and marginalization of organized labor and its ability to raise wages, improve workplace safety and health, and advance representative democracy not only in the workplace but in the body politic.

The current RTW legislation is a direct attack on organized labor and its ability to represent the economic and political interests of both the rank and file and those non-union workers whose wages and benefits are enhanced by employers to avoid unionization. No doubt, the role of unions in building and rebuilding economic security and the middle class, advancing workplace rights, and promoting political democracy will be a central part of the curriculum for this teachable moment.

All the current Republican candidates have refused opportunities to speak to union leaders. Instead, they have signed on to the anti-labor agenda, including RTW legislation, proposed by conservative corporations, business groups, and donors. Together with their other economic proposals, they have established a Republican brand that embraces and even celebrates a distorted sense of morality and inequality of income, wealth, and power.

But as Governors Kasich and Walker have found out, "as you sow so shall you reap." The fight against RTW proposals and their supporters will be particularly fierce in the battleground states, especially the Rust Belt swing states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota. Political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin consider those states crucial to Democratic chances in 2012. In addition, RTW initiatives have now put projected GOP states with relatively small labor movements, such as New Hampshire and Indiana, into play for 2012.

If RTW legislation inspires union members to support Obama in November, their family members are likely to follow suit. In New Hampshire & Indiana, about 10 percent of voters belong to unions, but union households make up about 20 percent of voters. This is smaller than in the Rust Belt battlegrounds, where 26 percent to 34 percent of voters belong to union households, but that 20 percent may still make a difference. Further, the effect of the anti-union push could also cross state borders by galvanizing labor and community activists from safe Democratic States into neighboring states in the 2012 election. Supporters in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and even Washington State organized phone banks to support the fight against the Indiana RTW bill.

Republicans also forget that their attacks on unions can turn off long-time Republican voters. In Ohio, the demonization of teachers as part of Issue 2 moved many Republican educators toward the Democrats. Educators are now the single most unionized group of workers in the U.S., and many continue to react strongly to conservative attacks, both in states where they are being targeted and across the country.

Further, while conservatives may hope to undermine union political influence with RTW initiatives, they don't understand the continuing power of unions to mobilize workers. Kasich's attack on public sector workers was overturned last year not because so many dollars flowed from unions into the Issue 2 campaign, though enough money was raised that We Are Ohio, the union-based organization that led the fight, is still spending the millions it has left. What really mattered was the person-to-person, door-to-door effort. Organizing, it turns out, still works.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by moderate Republicans, and many now believe that the party should not have taken this route. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have argued that the Republicans missed multiple opportunities to garner greater working-class and union support by crafting policies that, while socially conservative, would embrace "limited government pragmatism" that met the needs and aspirations of working people. They see many Republicans as having confused being "pro-market with being pro-business," and failing to make a distinction between policies that "foster dependency and those that foster independence and upward mobility." Rather than directly attacking the very existence of union, they encourage the development of new forms of unionism that are better suited for the new economy and enhance employment opportunities and economic advancement.